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What Rabbit? 

"You can't catch me 'cuz the rabbit done died."

I'd be willing to bet if you asked Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler, the scribe of this immortal phrase, why the rabbit died, the big-lipped singer wouldn't have an answer. Fear not, we're here to soothe your curious mind. What the rascally Mr. Tyler was referring to in the toe-tapper "Sweet Emotion" was the "rabbit test," an old practice that used a rabbit to determine if a woman was pregnant. If the rabbit died, it meant there was a bun the oven. So why a rabbit? And why did it have to die?

As it turns out, the rabbit test -- which two German doctors originated in the 1920s -- originally used mice. Urine from the patient was injected into several infantile mice (more than one mouse was used because some died from the injection, and not all animals reacted alike). The patient was deemed pregnant if the reaction was positive in only one mouse and negative in the others.

Eventually rabbits were used for this test instead of mice because of their unique breeding habits. Most mammals have "heat" cycles, during which time the female ovulates, and is then receptive to the male for breeding. The rabbit doesn't ovulate until it has been mated with a buck, a difference which gave scientists easy and usually reliable access to virgin does. This was important because virgin does have smooth ovaries. If the test results were negative, the ovaries would remain smooth and unmarked. If the test results were positive, and the patient was indeed pregnant, follicles that look like blisters would appear on the rabbit's ovaries -- which were easier to detect using on the pristine ovaries of a virgin doe.

But why did a pregnant woman's urine kill the rabbits? Actually, it didn't; the rabbits were simply euthanized after they had been inoculated and their ovaries examined. Through trial and error, researchers later found that it wasn't necessary to kill the rabbit at all, and one rabbit was used for several tests, after allowing the ovaries to regress after a positive result. Eventually, more sophisticated tests were developed that didn't use animals at all. But even today's modern laboratories and home pregnancy kits measure the same hormone levels as the tests carried out in the 1920s.

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