Rather than hopping around, domesticated sauteur d'Alfort rabbits walk on their front legs with their hindquarters in the air, like a person walking on their hands, and New Scientist reports that researchers have traced this distinctive rabbit locomotion to alterations in a single gene.
Researchers led by Uppsala University's Leif Andersson crossed a male sauteur d'Alfort rabbit that couldn't hop with a white New Zealand rabbit that could. As they report in PLOS Genetics, the researchers then sequenced the genomes of those rabbits' offspring to home in on a splice site mutation in RORB present among the rabbits that couldn't hop.
As New Scientist notes, RORB encodes a protein that is needed to connect the spinal cord neurons of the left and right sides of the body. In the affected rabbits, the researchers found that RORB expression in reduced in their spinal cords and leads to a developmental defect.
But how this spurs the rabbits to instead walk on their hands is unclear, University College London's Stephanie Koch who has studied a similar effect in mice tells Science News.
Still, Andersson tells New Scientist that the finding could provide insight into other animals' movement as well. "I would expect that, if it were impaired in a human, you would also get a defect in locomotion," he says.