Can a make-believe tale have real-life consequences? Perhaps a 1930s legend from a snowy town in Wyoming illustrates signals just how the strange things found in nature can become life-saving treatments.
Phoebe Melvin, Producer at Genome BC
Announcer: It’s still an uncharted wilderness in America, where unknown creatures could live. Hundreds of thousands…
Phoebe Melvin: So, okay.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Yeah.
Phoebe Melvin: Name every mythological creature you can think of. Ready, set, go.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Okay. Unicorn, obviously. Sphinx also. Mermaid, classic. Hey, it’s Kaylee.
Phoebe Melvin: And Phoebe. Welcome to Gene Shorts! In today’s bite-sized science minisode, I decided to quiz our esteemed host on her knowledge of the fantastic and fictional.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Oh, all-time favorite: house hippos.
Phoebe Melvin: That’s, yeah, deeply Canadian.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Werewolves.
Phoebe Melvin: A centaur.
Announcer: Obviously. Sound choice, yes.
Phoebe Melvin: And funny enough, there is one that you missed that I would like to talk about today.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Is that so?
Phoebe Melvin: Mm- hmm. And it’s an important one, because it’s a story of how a tall tale with a dash of truth has potentially helped save millions of lives.
Announcer: All right, don’t leave me hanging, let’s dive in. Fire away. (singing)
Phoebe Melvin: Our story begins in the 1930s in Douglas, Wyoming. It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and two young teenage hunters enter the town’s local hotel. They don’t have a coin to trade with the hotel keeper. Instead, they have a much larger prize. The two of them reveal a peculiar wall mount to the keeper to adorn the walls with in his hotel. It’s the head of a snowy white jackrabbit with tall but delicate antlers protruding from its forehead, better known as…
Dr.Kaylee Byers: A jackalope.
Phoebe Melvin: Mm-hmm. So the hotel keeper puts this jackalope head on his wall, and customers and passerbys would marvel at it as they came through the hotel. This creature became a sort of staple icon of North America’s strange creatures, and over the years its rarity captured global interest. You can actually buy pins and shirts, and their elusiveness has spun into further mystification of their origins. They are said to reproduce during lightning storms and harmonize with cowboys as they sing around a campfire. (singing)
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Why wouldn’t you do those things? That sounds wonderful.
Phoebe Melvin: So this is going to shock you, Kaylee. It’s all a complete hoax.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: No. They didn’t sing and have sex during lightning storms?
Phoebe Melvin: The two teenagers from the beginning, in addition to them being excellent hunters, as they needed to be, they were actually really talented taxidermists. What they decided to do was take the body of a jackrabbit, antlers from a deer, and then they stitched them together to create this fake species that didn’t really exist in nature. So you could say they were being pretty crafty.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Yeah, maybe a little different to the types of crafts I normally do. I’m a little boring with my knitting, although I might knit a jackalope sweater. Okay, so we have this majestic rabbit with the antlers, and maybe it’s not singing, but apparently it saves millions of lives. What is up with that? How’s that happen?
Phoebe Melvin: So the story of the jackalope might be fiction, but there’s something about it that almost rings true. So rabbits don’t have antlers, but sometimes it can look like they have horns, but they’re not true horns. These are horns formed by a virus, which seems a bit weird, but there’s a virus called the papillomavirus, and when it infects rabbits, they can get this growth that looks a little bit like a horn. And there was this American virologist called Richard Shope, and he spotted that the virus could make these rabbits grow, quote, unquote, “horns.” And they were actually the first mammalian model of a virus- induced cancer.
So the virus in the rabbit creates a cancer, and it’s the cancer that produce these horn- like growths, which is made out of the same material as your hair and your fingernails, the keratin, so they get these fibrous growths. But people didn’t know that a virus could create a cancer until the 1930s. So this is a pretty interesting discovery, particularly given that the papillomavirus is common in other species, not just rabbits and the fictional jackalope, but it’s also common in humans.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Okay, so what we’ve really learned here today is that the big myth about the jackalope is that they had majestic antlers, when in reality they had hideous horns. Is that what I’m taking away from this?
Phoebe Melvin: Sure, yeah, we could take it that way. There’s something to be learned from those hideous horns though, right? Because the cancer is caused by a virus, it means that you can create a vaccine to combat it.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Oh.
Phoebe Melvin: And in humans, the papillomavirus, also known as human papillomavirus, can cause cervical cancer as well as other forms of cancer. In the early 2000s in my homeland, Australia, researchers created a vaccine for HPV, human papillomavirus, and they rolled it out to be used around the world. And in a 2019 study of 66 million young people worldwide, the researchers were able to show that precancerous cervical lesions were reduced by 50% in people who had a cervix. So it’s an incredible reduction of the amount of cervical cancer that was occurring in the population because of this vaccine that was created because of the jackalope, I guess.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Wow. Thank you, rabbits. Well, thank you, Phoebe, for bringing another fascinating story to us, this one of the hopping kind. What a wonderful world of wacky discoveries we’ve got out there.
Phoebe Melvin: Yeah, I love a mythical creature, particularly when there’s something we can learn from them.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Yeah, not so mythical, just a little grosser.
Announcer: And we will at last know what they are, and then there will be no more skeptics.
Dr.Kaylee Byers: Thanks for listening, everyone. We hope you enjoyed another episode of our Gene Shorts!. If hearing about odd stories on rare animals and how their ailments can lead to some incredible discoveries is up your alley, might I suggest that you check out our Season 1 episode, Heroic Mutations, where we dive into some of the sometimes incredible advantages of mutations. Until we speak with you next, catch you later.