Sylvilagus floridanuseastern cottontail

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Geographic Range

The eastern cottontail has the widest distribution of any Sylvilagus. It is found from southern Manitoba and Quebec to Central and northwestern South America. In the contiguous United States, the eastern cottontail ranges from the east to the Great Plains in the west.

Habitat

Historically, the eastern cottontail inhabited deserts, swamps and hardwood forests, as well as rainforests and boreal forests. Currently, the eastern cottontail prefers edge environments between woody vegetation and open land. Its range of habitats includes meadows, orchards, farmlands, hedgerows and areas with second growth shrubs, vines and low deciduous trees. The eastern cottontail occurs sympatrically with many other leporids, including six species of Sylvilagus and six species of Lepus.

Physical Description

Adult eastern cottontails reach a length of 395 to 477 mm. A dense, buffy brown underfur and longer, coarser gray- and black-tipped guard hairs cover the back of the eastern cottontail. Its rump and flanks are gray, and it has a prominent rufous patch on its nape. The ventral surface is white. The eastern cottontail shows the white underside of its short tail when it is running. This rabbit undergoes two molts per year. The spring molt, lasting from mid-April to mid-July, leaves a short summer coat that is more brown. From mid-September to the end of October, the change to longer, grayer pelage occurs for winter. The eastern cottontail has four pairs of mammary glands. It also has distinctive large eyes for its size.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    0.8 to 1.53 kg
    1.76 to 3.37 lb
  • Range length
    395.0 to 477.0 mm
    15.55 to 18.78 in
  • Average length
    430.0 mm
    16.93 in

Reproduction

A mating pair performs an interesting ritual before copulation. This usually occurs after dark. The buck chases the doe until she eventually turns and faces him. She then spars at him with her forepaws. They crouch, facing each other, until one of the pair leaps about 2 feet in the air. This behavior is repeated by both animals before mating.

The beginning of reproductive activity in the eastern cottontail is related to the onset of the adult molt. Sexual maturity occurs around 2 to 3 months. An average of 25% of young are produced by juveniles (Banfield, 1981). Bucks are in breeding condition by mid-February and are active until September. Does are polyoestrus, with their first heat occurring in late February. The time of initial reproductive activity varies with latitude and elevation, occurring later at higher conditions of both. The onset of breeding is also controlled by temperature, availability of succulent vegetation and the change in photoperiod (Chapman et al., 1980). Does can have anywhere from 1 to 7 litters per year, but average 3 to 4. Gestation is typically between 25 and 28 days. A few days before the birth of her young, the doe prepares a grass and fur-lined nest. The nest is usually in a hollow beneath a shrub or a log or in tall grass. Litter size varies from 1 to 12 neonates with an average of 5. The newborns weigh 25 to 35 g, and are altricial; they are blind and naked. The young grow rapidly, initially about 2.5 g a day. Their eyes open around day 4 or 5, and they can leave the nest after about two weeks. The litter receives minimal care from their mother; they are nursed once or twice daily. Weaning occurs between 16 and 22 days. Litter mates become intolerant of each other and disperse at around seven weeks. The doe mates soon after her first litter, and she is often near the end of gestation as the current litter is leaving the nest.

  • Breeding interval
    Does can have 1 to 7 litters in a year, but average 3 to 4.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from February to September.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 12
  • Average number of offspring
    5
  • Average number of offspring
    5
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    25 to 28 days
  • Range weaning age
    16 to 22 days
  • Range time to independence
    4 to 5 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 3 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 3 months

Eastern cottontail females construct a nest in a protected place a few days before giving birth. They care for their young in the nest and nurse them until they are about 16 days old.

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Eastern cottontails are short-lived. Most do not survive beyond their third year.

Behavior

Eastern cottontails are solitary animals, and they tend to be intolerant of each other. Their home range is dependent on terrain and food supply. It is usually between 5 and 8 acres, increasing during the breeding season. Males generally have a larger home range than females. The eastern cottontail has keen senses of sight, smell and hearing. It is crepuscular and nocturnal, and is active all winter. During daylight hours, the eastern cottontail remains crouched in a hollow under a log or in a thicket or brushpile. Here it naps and grooms itself. The cottontail sometimes checks the surroundings by standing on its hind legs with its forepaws tucked next to its chest. Escape methods of the eastern cottontail include freezing and/or "flushing" (Chapman et al., 1980). Flushing consists of escaping to cover by a rapid and zig-zag series of bounds. The cottontail is a quick runner and can reach speeds up to 18 miles per hour. Vocalizations of the eastern cottontail include distress cries (to startle an enemy and warn others of danger), squeals (during copulation) and grunts (if predators approach a nesting doe and her litter). Eastern cottontails are short-lived; most do not survive beyond their third year. Enemies include hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, weasels and man.

Communication and Perception

Eastern cottontails have excellent vision, hearing, and sense of smell. Eastern cottontails make many sounds. They have cries of worry that are used to startle an enemy and warn others of danger. They grunt if predators approach a nesting female and her litter. They also make squeals during mating.

Food Habits

The eastern cottontail is a vegetarian, with the majority of its diet made up of complex carbohydrates and cellulose. The digestion of these substances is made possible by caecal fermentation. The cottontail must reingest fecal pellets to reabsorb nutrients from its food after this process. Their diet varies between seasons due to availability. In the summer, green plants are favored. About 50% of the cottontail's intake is grasses, including bluegrass and wild rye. Other summer favorites are wild strawberry, clover and garden vegtables. In the winter, the cottontail subsists on woody plant parts, including the twigs, bark and buds of oak, dogwood, sumac, maple and birch. As the snow accumulates, cottontails have access to the higher trunk and branches. Feeding activity peaks 2-3 hours after dawn and the hour after sunset.

Predation

Eastern cottontails can escape predators with their fast, jumping form of locomotion. They can run at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour. They will either flush, freeze, or slink to escape danger. Flushing is a fast, zig-zag dash to an area of cover. Slinking is moving low to the ground with the ears laid back to avoid detection. Freezing is simply remaining motionless.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The eastern cottontail is abundant and edible, therefore making it a prominent game species. It is hunted for sport, meat, and fur.

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Eastern cottontails cause a great deal of damage in their search for food. They are pests to gardeners and farmers in the summer. In the winter, they are a threat to the orchardist, forester and landscaper. In addition, humans may contract the bacterial disease tularemia from handling the carcass of an infected cottontail.

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Eastern cottontails are common throughout their range.

Contributors

Kimberly Mikita (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

Baker, R.H. 1983. Michigan Mammals. Michigan State University Press, Michigan.

Banfield, A.W.F. 1981. The Mammals of Canada. University of Toronto Press, Canada.

Birney, E.C. and J.K. Jones, Jr. 1988. Handbook of Mammals of the North-Central States. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.

Chapman, J.A., J.G. Hockman and M.M. Ojeda. 1980. Sylvilagus floridanus. Mammalian Species no.136. The American Society of Mammalogists.

Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Michigan.

Nowak, R.M. and J.L. Paradiso. 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World. vol 1. 4th ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland.