The origin of the word “Easter” isn’t certain. Bede, an eighth-century monk and scholar, suggested that the word may have come from the Anglo-Saxon “Eeostre”—a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.

Spring 2024 began just a week ago, and the first big holiday of the season is Easter. Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.

Ask almost any child you know, and he or she will tell you that Easter is the time that the Easter Bunny leaves hidden, special treats—often chocolate eggs or jelly beans—that youngsters then have to search to find. Christians say that Easter is the day that Jesus Christ came back to life, while others believe Easter is a celebration of new beginnings and the changing seasons.

What’s fun about this Easter is that just in time for 2024’s holiday, biologists have published a genome for the European brown hare, the original Easter Bunny familiar from European folklore.


Native to Europe and parts of Asia, the European brown hare is among the largest hare species and is adapted to temperate, open country. This animal is also thought to be the original Easter Bunny.

Hare history

Since Easter is a celebration of new life and spring, eggs and flowers are appropriate and obvious symbols for the day; but in European traditions, the bunny or “Easter hare,” with its reproductive potential, is not far behind.

During the Neolithic Age (10000 B.C. to 2200 B.C.) in Europe, hares were given ritual burials alongside humans, possibly representing rebirth. More than 1,000 years later, during the Iron Age (1200 B.C. to 550 B.C.) ceremonial burials for hares were common; and in 51 B.C., Julius Caesar mentioned that hares were not eaten in Britain due to their religious significance.

In the classical Greek tradition, hares were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. Aphrodite’s son Eros was often depicted carrying a hare as a symbol of unquenchable desire. Through the Renaissance, hares often appear as symbols of sexuality in art and literature. For example, the Virgin Mary is often shown with a rabbit or white hare, symbolizing that she overcame sexual temptation.


Easter egg hunts stem from a German tradition of the late 1600s. An egg-laying hare named Oschter Haws was believed to leave eggs behind for children to find. Children were then tasked with creating baskets or nests to keep the eggs in until it was time to eat them. This tradition closely resembles today’s Easter egg hunts.

But it is in the folk traditions of England and Germany that the hare is specifically connected to Easter. Accounts from the 1600s in Germany describe children hunting for Easter eggs hidden by the Easter hare, much as in the United States today. Written accounts from England around the same time also mention the Easter hare, particularly in terms of traditional Easter hare hunts and the eating of hare meat during the holiday.

In 1835, the folklorist Jacob Grimm, one of the famous Brothers Grimm, argued that the Easter hare was connected to a goddess he imagined would have been called Ostara in ancient German. He derived this name from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, who Bede, an early medieval monk, mentioned in A.D. 731. Bede noted that in eighth-century England, the month of April was called Eosturmonath, or Eostre Month, after the goddess, whose main symbol is the hare. He wrote that a pagan festival of spring in the name of the goddess Eostre had become assimilated into the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

Recent archaeological research appears to confirm the worship of Eostre in parts of England and Germany. The Easter Bunny, therefore, seems to recall these pre-Christian celebrations of spring, heralded by the spring equinox and personified by the goddess Eostre.


Openly accessible genome data—such as that just assembled by the University of Eastern Finland for the European brown hare—and related research will generate new knowledge and accelerate innovations in scientific fields.

Atlas addition

Traditionally, assembling reference genomes has been very difficult, as they have required constructing cytogenetic (producing cells) and linkage maps of chromosomes. That’s why they have been available only for humans and for some well-known, model organisms used in research. But now, the Hare Research Group in the Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences at the University of Eastern Finland has published a chromosomally assembled reference genome for the European brown hare in the Peer Community Journal. Reference genomes represent a type of standard, to which any genomic data from the species can be compared.

Recent technological advances have enabled new methods to reconstruct chromosome structures and identify their gene contents. These methods were used in this study to sequence and assemble a reference genome of a brown male hare from Liperi, Eastern Finland. The genome consists of 2.9 billion base pairs, which form 23 autosomal chromosomes, and X and Y sex chromosomes. In total, 30,833 genes were identified, of which 21,467 are protein encoding. As a comparison, the human genome is slightly bigger (3.1 billion bases) but has less protein-coding genes (20,080).

The European brown hare represents the first genome of a Finnish species in the European Reference Genome Atlas initiative, which aims to generate reference genomes for all European eukaryotic species (a eukaryote is an organism consisting of a cell or cells in which the genetic material is DNA in the form of chromosomes contained within a distinct nucleus. Eukaryotes include all living organisms other than archaebacteria and eubacteria). Reference genomes will enable and facilitate many types of research with species in the future, as any DNA sequence data from a species can be rapidly identified by comparing it with the reference.


An iconic upland species, the mountain hare is famed for its camouflage. Mountain hares are larger than rabbits, but smaller than brown hares. Their reference genome will soon join that of the European brown hare in the “European Reference Genome Atlas.”

Together with the mountain hare reference genome that is currently under preparation, the European brown hare genome will open new research avenues into evolutionary history, physiological adaptations and population surveys.

Leveret leavings

While there are conflicting accounts for the origins and symbolism of the Easter Bunny, European brown hares were common in mainland Europe long before rabbits became popular.

So, let me wish you a happy Easter. And I sincerely hope the Easter Leveret (or young hare) leaves you loads of chocolates and sweets.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,