Although 2011 has been alive and kicking for more than a month now, the year is just hopping to life according to the Sheng Xiao, otherwise known as the Chinese Zodiac. And as with every Chinese Lunar New Year, there's an animal (or, in some cases, mythical creature) to mark the occasion.

2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, one of the more cuddly of the 12 critters making up this celestial menagerie. Yet despite many pop-culture portrayals, rabbits aren't all twitchy noses and Easter baskets. They're complex, resilient creatures, but they've been so caricatured in cartoons and other media that we sometimes forget they're actual animals — of the family Leporidae, to be exact. They aren't always named Bugs, Roger, Jessica, Peter, Thumper or Kendra Wilkinson, and they don't exist solely in children's books, battery commercials and men's magazines. Just ask any gardener who's done battle with a rabbit infestation. They're real all right.

To better understand and appreciate 2011's poster animal, below you'll find five fascinating facts about rabbits of the non-anthropomorphic variety.

trixThey don't eat breakfast cereal: Kids, your Trix are safe. Real rabbits are "coprophagous" animals, which means, well, they eat poop. They actually produce two different kinds of droppings, the first being your average fecal pellet. They don't eat those. But they do munch on cecal pellets, also known as "night droppings," a smaller, softer type of feces made of partially digested food. Given their unique digestive systems, rabbits must eat food twice to extract all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. You know how cows throw up and then chew on cud? A rabbit munching on a fresh cecal pellet serves a similar purpose.

cadbury eggNor do they eat (or lay) Cadbury eggs: Rabbits are strict herbivores, and in the wild they mainly dine on grass and various other plants. And yes, they do enjoy a carrot now and then as a special treat/teeth sharpener, although an all-carrot diet would likely make them sick. And on the topic of sick bunnies, there is one non-vegetable item rabbits reportedly adore: licorice. But owners of begging, sweet-toothed pet rabbits should not feed them licorice or any other candy (including Cadbury Creme Eggs), as they can't properly digest sugars. Plus, they're incapable of throwing up anything that upsets their sensitive stomachs.

Not all rabbits have Brooklyn accents: The world's most famous wascally wabbit, Bugs Bunny, is known for his distinct dialect, described by longtime voice actor Mel Blanc as a hybrid of Brooklyn and Bronx accents. But according to the book "Bugs Bunny: Fifty Years and Only One Grey Hare," B.B. is a Brooklyn boy at heart, born in 1940 at Ebbets Field. Real rabbits aren't quite as chatty, although they do make a soft "purring" noise to express pleasure, much like cats. While cats vibrate their voice boxes to purr, rabbits make their "I'm happy" noise by grinding their teeth together. But when a rabbit emits an especially loud teeth-grinding noise, it may signal distress. Rabbits can also growl, hiss, grunt, squeal, coo and, most famously, thump their hind feet.

Not all bunnies live in the Playboy Mansion: Imaginary rabbits are very adaptable, making their homes in a wide variety of places. In real life, most wild bunnies live in simple burrows, often clumped into communities called "warrens." Cottontail rabbits are one exception, however, residing in aboveground nests. The same goes for hares, which — despite being closely related to rabbits — are also different in a few other ways. Most notably, baby rabbits (called kits) are "altricial," meaning they're born blind, hairless and helpless. Baby hares, on the other hand, are "precocial," born with hair, open eyes and more wherewithal. And unlike social rabbits, hares are shy and solitary — so you probably wouldn't find them at many Wonderland tea parties.

Rabbits jump, not hop, for joy: Unlike Binky, the morose lagomorphic star of "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comic strip, rabbits can be quite happy, even joyous, creatures. They express this through a form of body language called a binky (very clever, Groening). A binky isn't quite a standard hop, but more of a twisting, twitchy, frenetic jump, like the one pictured at right. Some rabbits do this acrobatic "happy dance" frequently, while others save it for special occasions. If the Year of the Rabbit counts as such an occasion, perhaps 2011 will see more real-life bunnies acting like their cartoonish pop-culture counterparts after all.

Also on MNN:

Image credits

Trix cereal: theimpulsivebuy/Flickr

Cadbury egg: greenkozi/Flickr

Bugs bunny silhouette: Rodrigo Gianesi/Flickr

Playboy bunny: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Rabbit binky: Jannes Pockele/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Chinese New Year: 5 fascinating rabbit facts
To start off your Year of the Rabbit on the right foot, check out these five incredible facts about the furry flag-bearers of 2011.