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Set in modern day, a small warren of rabbits randomly achieve sapience in an unremarkable, rural countryside. These rabbits become capable of thinking and self-reflection, as well as advanced teamworking and organisation. They could use tools, but its difficult to craft or hold anything with paws. Otherwise, they live as rabbits live. They are incapable of speaking any human language (incompatible vocal cords), but they do have a language of their own.

Although intelligent, they are still unlearnt and their society is primitive.

Any offspring from this warren is sapient as well, but all other rabbits remain just animals. The warren is capable of expanding at however fast rabbits breed.

Rabbit hunting and snaring is still popular among the farmers living nearby the rabbit's territory. As such, the rabbits develop a deep fear of humans and try to avoid them.

How long would it take humans to realise that this rabbit community possesses sapience?

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    $\begingroup$ The first time one of the little honkers jumped onto my chest, grabbed my shirt, and cussed me out - and just after I overcame my shock over being cussed out by a rabbit - I'd realize the ittle hasenpfeffer-on-the-hoof was sentient. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 24 '18 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ Forgive me if I'm wrong (in which case I probably misunderstood the question), but I think you're all confusion sentient with sapient. Now that I think about it, I've pointed out this same mistake quite a few times on this website... $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Dec 24 '18 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ You're right, I am. I've edited it to sapient instead of sentient. $\endgroup$ – Wyvern Dec 24 '18 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ A first glance, your rabbits == Watership Down's rabbits. (In case there are any intellectual property concerns.) $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Dec 28 '18 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Lol, yes. The question was Watership Down inspired. $\endgroup$ – Wyvern Dec 28 '18 at 20:30
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A lot longer than you might think, followed by no time at all

Sapience is more than the ability to think grand thoughts. It's the ability to work with and around your environment. To plan for your future beyond simple food storage (chipmunks ain't sapient, nasty little bounders when they're throwing stuff at my cat, but not sentient). A sapient creatre consistently acts proactively.

Which means humans would rarely (if ever) see them.

Sapient rabbits would quickly realize they're a food source for other creatures, most notably wolves and humans. The easiest protect is to not be where the predator is. So their warrens (if they use them anymore) wouldn't be near human encampments.

However, once you did find them, you'd notice odd things, like guards and basic built-up defences or early-warning stuff like well-placed twigs that make predictable popping noises when disturbed.

So, I think it would take forever and a day (or some blindingly bad luck on the part of the rabbits) to discover the rabbits, but a short time after that to realize they were sapient. What rabbit carries a knife or any other form of tool?

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  • $\begingroup$ Chipmunks are definitely sentient (as are pretty much all animals, with the exception perhaps of insects and bivalves and such, the latter questions not having been answered conclusively one way or the other) if you're using the standard (though, yes language is an evolving construct) definition of sentient, which is simply the capacity to perceive/experience. Perhaps you mean self-aware (which is broadly the capacity to understand one's relation to the world and to oneself)? $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Dec 24 '18 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray are you trying to drive me mad???? They can't... I mean they just can't be sentient. The evil little proto-monkies! They hate my cat! They can't... No... it's OK. They're not sentient. It's still OK to shoot the fat little rats. (whew! that was close!) $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 24 '18 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM, nope. Expressed in book English: "Chipmunks are not sapient. Even though they throw things at my cat, which suggests some level of intelligence, they simply aren't sapient." It's an in-joke for anyone who's ever had a pet terrorized by chipmunks, which can throw pine cones with remarkable accuracy. Evil little communists.... $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 24 '18 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, they might not be as skittish as you are picturing. They very well might figure out that there are multiple types of humans. Yes, farmers would be dangerous, but hikers would not. And they wouldn't realize there would be a reaction to being discovered to be sapient. Thus I would expect discovery much sooner due to a hiker or photographer with a long lens. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Dec 24 '18 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel, that's possible, but the OP described a primitive society. My after-the-answer opinion is that the analysis you're suggesting might be complicated. Not all hikers are nice people. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 25 '18 at 1:20
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Probably not long at all

The population numbers would explode, as noted by kineticcrusher. Sapient rabbits would suddenly be much harder to kill as they would be better able to learn from the mistakes of fellow rabbits and avoid traps, bait, spotlighting farmers, birds of prey etc.

However, sapience does not equate to knowledgeable. There is also no guarantee that sapient rabbit ethics are even close to (any) human ethics. If they are in a rural area then they will go for the crops on hand because they are the most available food source and they will not understand the consequences that will follow. Their psychology will probably allow them to accept casualty levels, even among their young, that humans today would consider unacceptable.

The farmers will detect massive increased rabbit feeding damaging their crops. They will try all the usual remedies and fail to solve the problem - each attempt will cause some casualties, but all the survivors and their descendants will learn how to deal with the new threat. The most likely escalation is that the farmers call in the state or federal primary industry body or some experts from the university. This results in a study, involving drones and remote cameras. The rabbits would quickly learn that the cameras are not a threat and act "sapient normal" in their view, at which point the secret is out.

Alternatively, if the rabbits are in Australia then we might try out a new strain of calicivirus on the feral pests without a prolonged study. No matter how smart the rabbits are, without knowledge of biowarfare protocols that's probably the end of rabbit sapience. (So I'm guessing you don't want the rabbits to be in Australia.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Did someone say White Blindness? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 28 '18 at 14:40
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Since the rabbits would likely become aware of their hunters and how to avoid them, and since rabbit gestation periods last only about a month, the rabbit population would likely explode over the next year or two.

Once crops are eaten, a few lucky country folk encounter communicating rabbits wielding sticks, and rabbit societies begin forming in the deepest parts of the forest, news coverage would likely reach worldwide attention and the rabbits would become famous. In fact, the rabbits would likely evolve in a process similar to humans, but of course it would take millions of years.

I'd imagine this would lead to a future in which rabbits and humans have evolved together and created a really weird society, but that's beside the point.

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