Fact Sheets New England cottontail by vng17747


									U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

New England Cottontail
Sylvilagus transitionalis

Disappearing rabbit trick
Why would a rabbit, the epitome of
prolific breeding, be considered for
protection under the Endangered
Species Act? The New England cottontail
is in just this predicament. Its population
numbers are declining. As recently as
1960, New England cottontails were
found east of the Hudson River in New
York, across all of Connecticut, Rhode
Island and Massachusetts, north to
southern Vermont and New Hampshire,
and into southern Maine. Today, this
rabbit's range has shrunk by more than
75 percent. Its numbers are so greatly
diminished that it can no longer be found
in Vermont and has been reduced to only
five smaller populations throughout its
historic range.
                                              Anne Brown

Where the bunnies are
The New England cottontail prefers
early successional forests, often called
thickets, with thick and tangled                           New England cottontail
vegetation. These young forests are
generally less than 25 years old. Once                     Why are their numbers declining?             The introduction of exotic invasive
large trees grow in a stand, the shrub                     Biologists believe the reduced extent of     species, such as multiflora rose,
layer tends to thin, creating habitat that                 thicket habitat is the primary reason for    honeysuckle bush and autumn olive, in
the New England cottontail no longer                       the decline in numbers and range of New      the last century has changed the type of
finds suitable.                                             England cottontails. Prior to European       habitat available to New England
                                                           settlement, New England cottontails          cottontails. These plants form the major
Active at dawn and at dusk or night, the                   were probably found along river valleys      component of many patches where
New England cottontail feeds on                            where floods and beavers created the          cottontails can be found. It may be that
grasses and plant leaves in spring and                     disturbances needed to generate its          stands dominated by non-native species
summer and eats bark and twigs in                          preferred habitat. Forest insect             do not provide rabbits with the food
winter. Home ranges vary from one-half                     outbreaks, large storms like hurricanes      resources that native plant species do.
to 8 acres, with adult males having                        and ice storms, and wild fire also created
larger home ranges than females.                           disturbances in the forest that promoted     Today white-tailed deer are found in
Research has shown that New England                        thicket growth. During colonial times,       extremely high densities throughout
cottontails on patches of habitat larger                   much of the New England forest was           the range of New England cottontails.
than 12 acres are healthier than those                     cleared for agriculture and then             Deer not only eat many of the same
on patches less than 7 acres.                              subsequently abandoned during the early      plants but also affect the structure and
Presumably, rabbits on small patches of                    1900s. This abandoned farmland allowed       density of many understory plants that
habitat deplete their food supply sooner                   for a great deal of early successional       provide thicket habitat for New
and have to eat lower quality food, or                     habitats to develop. Today, these habitats   England cottontails.
may need to search for food in areas                       are aging while others have been
where there is more risk of being killed                   developed and are no longer suitable
by a predator.                                             for the New England cottontail.
Introduced competitor                         believe that “translocation” may allow the
In the early 1900s until the 1960s,           rabbits to more quickly occupy areas
hunting clubs and some eastern states         where habitat has been restored.
introduced another species of rabbit, the
eastern cottontail, into New England.         Researchers are also conducting radio
Eastern cottontails appear able to thrive     telemetry studies to better understand
in a greater variety of habitats than New     how eastern and New England
England cottontails through its ability to    cottontails use habitats when both
detect predators sooner. This helps           species occupy the same area. This
eastern cottontails forage more safely in     information could provide valuable
relatively open cover, while New England      insight on the ability of these two species
cottontails risk predation whenever they      to co-exist.
leave the security of their dense thicket
habitats. The slightly better ability to      Habitat is the key to recovery
avoid predators enables eastern               It is relatively easy to manage and create
cottontails to live in more diverse           thickets for the New England cottontail.
habitats, such as fields, farms and forest     The Service, states and many other
edges, and they are gradually replacing       organizations are working together to
New England cottontails in many habitat       manage habitats for the species, which
patches.                                      will benefit other animals – such as
                                              American woodcock, ruffed grouse,
Identity is more than skin deep               eastern towhees, yellow breasted chats,
It is nearly impossible to distinguish a      whip-poor-wills and other shrubland
New England cottontail from an eastern        dependent wildlife that are of
cottontail by looking at them. The minor      conservation concern. Recently awarded
differences of ear length, body mass, and     grants totaling more than $1 million are
presence or absence of a black spot           supporting these efforts and the
between the ears and a black line on the      development of a conservation strategy
front of each ear are subtle enough to be     to recover the New England cottontail.
missed and are not 100 percent accurate.
Scientists used to rely on examining the      Landowners play a crucial role in
rabbits' skulls for positive identification,   providing cottontail habitat. Many of the
but can now use DNA analysis of fecal         known cottontail patches occur on private
pellets. Since rabbits drop fecal material    lands. The Service is working diligently
all around their territory, the extracted     with state governments to develop and
DNA from pellets collected throughout         implement candidate conservation
the region can provide a picture of where     agreements that provide assurances
the New England cottontail is found.          should the New England cottontail be
                                              formally listed as a threatened or
Understanding the rabbit                      endangered species in the future. For
Several research projects are underway        more information, view the Landowners
that will help determine the best             Guide to New England Cottontail
management practices for New England          Management online at
cottontail. These projects include an         http://www.edf.org/.
investigation of the range-wide genetic
structure of the species and an analysis of
the gene frequencies in Maine’s New           Northeast Region
England cottontail population. This           U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
research will provide information about       300 Westgate Center Drive
the rabbit’s dispersal patterns and other     Hadley, MA 01035
behaviors, and will help estimate the size    413/253 8200
of existing populations. Researchers are      http://northeast.fws.gov
also evaluating an alternative technique
for identifying rabbit species through        Federal Relay Service
DNA in fecal pellets that should facilitate   for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
survey efforts to identify new New            1 800/877 8339
England cottontail sites and track
changes in patch occupancy.                   U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
                                              1 800/344 WILD
Another important area of research            http://www.fws.gov
involves moving New England cottontails
to former parts of their range. Managers      April 2009

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