Did adorable little bunnies kill the Neanderthals?

Or, to put that somewhat more accurately, did not being able to kill adorable little bunnies in turn kill the Neanderthals? When all that stood between extinction and survival was figuring out how to hunt rabbits, it seems Neanderthals chose extinction.

There are lots of hypotheses as to why the Neanderthals went extinct, most focusing on some combination of environmental change and encroachment by our human ancestors. But, on a basic level, Neanderthals should have been able to survive for as long as there was food available for them to eat. A lot of previous thinking has suggested that Neanderthals weren't able to hunt some of the more complicated prey that their human counterparts feasted on, but recent research at Neanderthal sites have revealed that they were apparently perfectly capable of hunting fish, birds, and marine mammals.

The one species that might have outwitted them — or at least proved too difficult to hunt — was the rabbit. As New Scientist reports, John Fa and his research team at the UK's Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust examined cave sites belonging to both humans and Neanderthals in France and Spain. Judging by animal remains found in the caves, both groups appeared to subsist on large animals like deer until about 30,000 years ago, at which point humans switched over to eating smaller prey like rabbits.

There's no evidence that Neanderthals made a similar move, and that coincides with when their populations went into irrevocable decline. It could be a sudden scarcity of large prey meant Europe"s hominins had to adapt quickly and eat smaller prey, with rabbits serving as a new backbone of the human diet (although, it should be pointed out that humans weren't eating only rabbit, as that's a very, very bad idea). Fa and his team speculate that large-scale rabbit-hunting required the use of fire or dogs to chase rabbits out of their warrens, which might have proved too complex a strategy for Neanderthals to master.

For more, check out New Scientist and the original paper at the Journal of Human Evolution.

Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr.