Sylvilagus obscurusAppalachian cottontail

Last updated:

Geographic Range

Appalachian cottontails inhabit forests and brushy areas at high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from the Hudson River in New York to northern Alabama. (Boyce and Barry, 2007; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

Habitat

Appalachian cottontails inhabit montane areas of high elevation coniferous forests as well as areas providing dense cover from mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), blackberry vines (Rubus spp.), greenbriar (Smilax spp.), and cane (Arundinaria gigantea). Generally, Appalachian cottontails are found at elevations greater than 762 m, though this species has been reported below 610 m at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and Alabama. Appalachian cottontails are also found in high densities in clear cuts and ares of recent (5 to 25 years) disturbance. (Bunch, et al., 2006; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Range elevation
    762 (low) m
    2500.00 (low) ft

Physical Description

Appalachian cottontails are yellowish brown mixed with black on the dorsal side and have a reddish brown patch over the neck. Their sides are lighter in color and their ventral side white. They also have a short fluffy tail, which is darker on the top and ventrally white. Appalachian cottontails are nearly indistinguishable from New England cottontails in the field. They, however, occur in different ranges; cottontails found south or west of the Hudson River in New York are considered Appalachian cottontails. (Bunch, et al., 2006; Kurta, 1995; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

While Appalachian cottontails show great resemblance to Eastern cottontails, Appalachian cottontails are slightly smaller in size, have shorter, rounded ears with black along the edges, and have a black spot on the head between the ears. Also, Eastern cottontails usually have a white spot on their forehead, which Appalachian cottontails lack. Additionally, the skulls of Appalachian cottontails and Eastern cottontails are markedly different when viewed from above. Appalachian cottontails have a jagged and irregular suture line between the frontal and nasal bones, whereas this line is smooth in Eastern cottontails. Also, the postorbital process of Appalachian cottontails are thin and just barely join the skull at the posterior end. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    .8 to 1.0 kg
    1.76 to 2.20 lb
  • Range length
    38.6 to 43.0 cm
    15.20 to 16.93 in
  • Average length
    40.0 cm
    15.75 in

Reproduction

Although little information is available regarding the mating systems of Appalachian cottontails, other members of g. Sylvilagus are polygynous. Males in this genus fight amongst themselves, determining a hierarchy that influences mating priority. Appalachian cottontails may squeal while mating. (Nowak, 1999)

Male Appalachian cottontails come into breeding condition at the end of winter due to lengthening daylight and increases in temperature. Breeding begins in warm weather, usually between late February and early October. A prolific species, adult female Appalachian cottontails can breed immediately after giving birth. An adult female breeds an average of 3 times during the season and can bare 3 to 4 young with each litter. Appalachian cottontails produce 2 to 8 young annually. Gestation lasts 28 days, and young are weaned after 3 to 4 weeks. Around 6 to 7 days of age, young Appalachian cottontails, which are born blind, open their eyes, and after 12 to 14 days, they leave the next. Sexual maturity is reached after 1 to 2 months of age. Although males do not reproduce until the following spring, some female Appalachian cottontails reproduce late in the breeding season of their first summer. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    Female adult Appalachian cottontails breed 3 times during the breeding season, and a female cottontail from the first litter will likely breed during that same summer.
  • Breeding season
    Appalachian cottontails breed between February to October.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
    3.5
  • Average gestation period
    28 days
  • Range weaning age
    3 to 4 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    1 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2-3 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2-3 months

Expectant female Appalachian cottontails build a shallow nest composed of leaves, grass, and fur. Young cottontails are born naked, blind, and helpless, and the mother invests the month after birth to weaning and raising the litter. When she leaves for an extended period of time, the mother covers her nest and young with layers of fur, grass, leaves and twigs for camouflage and to keep the young warm. After 6 or 7 days, young Appalachian cottontails open their eyes, and after 12 to 14 days, they leave the nest. Lactation generally lasts for 16 days. After about one month, the young are completely independent from the mother. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Appalachian cottontails are very short-lived and are expected to live less than one year. Populations of this species are maintained because of their incredible productivity. (Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 (high) years

Behavior

Appalachian cottontails are crepuscular or active at dawn and dusk. During the day, they tend to rest and groom under a log or in another area sheltered from predators. Cottontails are active year-round. Most species of g. Sylvilagus are considered solitary, and males are thought to create dominance hierarchies based on fighting that influence mating priority. (Kurta, 1995; Nowak, 1999; Russell, et al., 1999)

  • Range territory size
    0.015 to 0.133 km^2

Home Range

Male Appalachian cottontails have a larger home range during the breeding season, up to 13.3 ha. Female home ranges remain fairly constant and can be as small as 1.5 ha. (Boyce and Barry, 2007; Nowak, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Similarly to other cottontails, Appalachian cottontails exercise a heightened sense of smell, hearing, and sight, aiding sending and receiving of signals, attracting mates, and allowing quick perception of and reaction to potential predators. Mothers may grunt if a predator is seen near the nest. Appalachian cottontails may also squeal while mating. (Kurta, 1995; Nowak, 1999; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Food Habits

The diet of Appalachian cottontails consists of grasses, forbs, and conifer needles in addition to leaves, twigs, and fruits from the mountainous shrubs in its habitat. In the winter, it is suspected that this species eats the buds and bark of trees and shrubs including red maple, aspen, choke cherry, black cherry, alders, and blueberry bushes. (Bowers, et al., 2007; Kurta, 1995)

Like most Lagomorphs, Appalachian cottontails partakes of coprophagy, the eating of their own feces. This allows for the uptake of essential vitamins that were unabsorbed during the first pass through the digestive tract. (Kurta, 1995)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • fruit
  • Other Foods
  • dung

Predation

Appalachian cottontails have quick, saltatorial locomotion to escape potential predators. Often, cottontails dash in a zig-zag pattern to lose predators. A slinking form of movement, low to the ground with the ears back, may be used to avoid detection. Additionally, cottontails can remain almost completely still and quiet for up to 15 minutes, even when closely approached, to prevent detection from predators. Known predators include Owls, Hawks, Dogs, Foxes, and Humans. (Kurta, 1995; Nowak, 1999)

Ecosystem Roles

Appalachian cottontails serve as prey for a wide variety of animals, including Owls, Hawks, Dogs, Foxes, and Humans. As consumers of fruits, this species may also act as seed dispersers. Appalachian cottontails also slow the regeneration of disturbed areas in the environment by feeding on low growing shrubs and grasses that colonize during early to mid succession. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Appalachian cottontails and eastern cottontails are similar in appearance and both are hunted for their meat and fur. (Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

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

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Appalachian cottontails slow the regeneration of disturbed areas in the environment by feeding on low growing shrubs and grasses that colonize during early to mid succession. Appalachian cottontails can also transmit the bacterial infection, Tularemia, to humans. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Conservation Status

Appalachian cottontails are found only in high elevations and are considered to be "near threatened" by the IUCN Red List. Population sizes are decreasing, and it is unknown why this species is limited to high elevations. Conservation status on the US Federal List is under review. (Bunch, et al., 2006)

Contributors

Jeremy Cook (author), Northern Michigan University, John Bruggink (editor), Northern Michigan University, Gail McCormick (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

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

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

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.

causes disease in humans

an animal which directly causes disease in humans. For example, diseases caused by infection of filarial nematodes (elephantiasis and river blindness).

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coprophage

an animal that mainly eats the dung of other animals

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

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.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

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.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

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

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

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).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

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

References

Bowers, N., R. Bowers, K. Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4U9QA6IXoI0C&oi=fnd&pg=PA4&dq=%22Sylvilagus+obscurus%22&ots=YbMR2sgir1&sig=rGkBNUgTqKN5GVigCQIJYQdksHo#PPP1,M1.

Boyce, K., R. Barry. 2007. Seasonal Home Range and Diurnal Movements of Sylvilagus obscurus (Appalachian Cottontail) at Dolly Sods, West Virginia. Northeastern Naturalist, 14(1): 99-110. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://zc9gn3am3j.scholar.serialssolutions.com/?sid=google&auinit=KA&aulast=Boyce&atitle=Seasonal+Home+Range+and+Diurnal+Movements+of+Sylvilagus+obscurus+(Appalachian+Cottontail)+at+Dolly+Sods,+West+Virginia&id=doi:10.1656/1092-6194(2007)14[99:SHRADM]2.0.CO%3B2.

Bunch, M., R. Davis, S. Miller, R. Harrison. 2006. "Appalachian Cottontail" (On-line). Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources). Accessed January 23, 2011 at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/AppalachianCottontail.pdf.

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

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Volume 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed January 23, 2011 at http://books.google.com/books?id=7W-DGRILSBoC&pg=PA1728&dq=Nowak+mammals+of+the+world+1999+sylvilagus&hl=en&ei=tH48Ta_CFsKclgf-_diDBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=sylvilagus&f=false.

Russell, K., C. Moorman, D. Guynn. 1999. Appalachian Cottontails, Sylvilagus obscurus (Lagomorpha: Leporidae), from the South Carolina Mountains with Observations on Habitat Use. The Journal of Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 115(3): 140-144. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://www.uwsp.edu/cnr/faculty/russell/images/cottontails.pdf.

Sharpe, T., J. Newman. 1996. "North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commision" (On-line). Appalachian Cottontail Rabbit Sylvilagus obscurus. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://www.ncwildlife.org/Wildlife_Species_Con/Profiles/rabbitappcottontail.pdf.

Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Vancouver, B.C. Canada: UBC Press. Accessed March 12, 2009 at http://books.google.com/books?id=qNFgzIPGuSUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Smithsonian+Book+of+North+American+Mammals.