Sylvilagus transitionalisNew England cottontail

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Geographic Range

New England cottontails live exclusively in the New England region of the United States. However, destruction of their habitat means that the modern distribution of these rabbits occupies less than 25% historically occupied areas. (Litvaitus and Tash, 2004)

Habitat

New England cottontails live in woodlands in New England, preferring those of higher elevation or more northern latitudes. The forests where New England cottontails make their homes all have dense understory cover, preferably of blueberry or mountain laurel. New England cottontails make nests in depressions roughly 12 cm deep by 10 cm wide and line them with grasses and fur. They rarely venture more than 5 m from cover. (Kays and Vilson, 2009; Litvaitus and Tash, 2004)

Physical Description

New England cottontails are medium-sized rabbits that closely resemble eastern cottontails. They weigh between 995 and 1347 g and have lengths between 398 and 439 mm. Their coats are dark brown with a penciled effect and their tails have white undersides. New England cottontails can be differentiated from eastern cottontails by the black hair between and on the anterior surface of their ears. New England cottontails sexually dimorphic, with larger females than males. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    995 to 1347 g
    35.07 to 47.47 oz
  • Range length
    398 to 439 mm
    15.67 to 17.28 in

Reproduction

During mating, male New England cottontails form breeding groups around dominant females in areas of the habitat with plentiful food and good cover. Courtship of cottontails involves a running and jumping display, often in which one rabbit jumps over the other. Though linear hierarchies for female cottontails are not clearly defined, once paired off, the unreceptive female demonstrates dominance over the male during nesting, parturition and nursing to avoid harassment by males. (Chapman and Flux, 2008)

Testes of male New England cottontails begin to enlarge in late December and pregnant females appear between April and August. Gestation period is about 28 days, and female New England cottontails have 2 to 3 litters per year that average 5.2 young per litter. New England cottontails usually copulate again immediately following parturition. Sylvilagus transitionalis is short-lived and breeds at an early age, with many juvenile rabbits breeding in their first season. Reproductive patterns vary with latitudes - the farther north the habitat of the cottontail, the larger the litter and the shorter the gestation period. This allows them to produce more litters in warmer weather. The young are born naked with their eyes closed, so mothers care for their young in nests for 2 to 3 weeks after birth. The mother has often mated again by the time the juveniles have left the nest. (Burton and Burton, 2002; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • Breeding interval
    New England cottontails breed 2 to 3 times a year.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season for New England cottontails can span from January to September, depending on the elevation and latitude. For example, the breeding season in Connecticut lasts from mid-March to mid-September, whereas in Maine the breeding season for Sylvilagus transitionalis lasts from April to August.
  • Range number of offspring
    3 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
    5.2
  • Average gestation period
    28 days
  • Range weaning age
    14 to 21 days
  • Average weaning age
    16 days
  • Average time to independence
    4 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (high) years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 (high) years

The parental investment of Sylvilagus transitionalis is minimal. There is no investment by male cottontails and female cottontails nurse their young in the nest for about 16 days. (Burton and Burton, 2002)

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

Lifespan/Longevity

Like all cottontails, Sylvilagus transitionalis has a short lifespan in the wild, usually no more than three years. On average, only 15% of the young will survive their first year. ("Species Profile for New England Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus transitionalis)", 2012; "Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    3 years

Behavior

New England cottontails are solitary animals -- specific connections between them are restricted to mating. They are also timid and do not often stray more than 5 m from cover. Like other rabbits and hares, New England cottontails groom themselves extensively. (Chapman and Flux, 1990)

Home Range

Home range for New England cottontails greatly varies with habitat size. Home ranges span anywhere from 0.1 to 7.6 ha, depending on the size and density of the patch. However, most home ranges are about 1 ha. Males tend to have slightly larger ranges than females. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

Communication and Perception

New England cottontails, like other cottontails, have strong hearing and eyesight. They make low, purring, grunting, or growling sounds when they are breeding or fighting and utter a loud, shrill scream if captured by a predator. In addition, New England cottontails often hit the ground with their hind feet, which may be a means of communication to other rabbits. Like other mammals, olfactory clues are also likely to be important. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012)

Food Habits

New England cottontails are herbivorous. The specific makeup of their diet depends on the season. In the spring and summer, they eat mostly grasses and forbs. In the fall, they transition to a diet of woody twigs, and the winter diet is determined primarily by forage ability. Digestion in New England cottontails employs coprophagy, in which soft feces is re-ingested to increase the amount of nitrogen in the diet. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

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

Predation

New England cottontails fall prey to small and medium sized predators such as weasels, cats, foxes, and birds of prey. While hares are built for long-term speed to outrun predators, New England cottontails sprint for cover when danger approaches. They sometimes freeze when they sense danger, taking advantage of their cryptic coloration to hide. When chased, they zig-zag to confuse the predator. New England cottontails that occupy the smallest habitat patches, with less vegetative cover, are most vulnerable to predation, as they are forced to forage more in the open. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012; Chapman and Flux, 2008; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

New England cottontails are prey to mid-sized predators such as foxes, weasels, and birds of prey, and act as the staple food source for many of these predators. In areas where food is plentiful, their populations are able to sustain great losses because of their rapid reproductive rates. In some areas, New England cottontails are considered a buffer prey species. This means that if their numbers are high, predators will focus on them, thereby reducing the pressure on other prey species in the area. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Historically, many people have hunted New England cottontails for sport, fur, and meat. Due to the declining numbers of Sylvilagus transitionalis, the hunting of this species has greatly decreased over the past 20 years or so, though it does still occur. New England cottontails and other cottontails are often used for ecological research, as their size and temperament makes them easy to handle and they have high population turnover. (Chapman and Flux, 1990; Chapman and Flux, 2008; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

New England cottontails host many types of parasites, including ticks, and thus can provide a vector for tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, and tularemia. These diseases are easily transferable to humans and domestic pets. (Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

Conservation Status

Since the 1960's there has been widespread decline of New England cottontail populations. It is estimated that available habitats for New England cottontails have declined by 86% since 1960. While many theories for this decline have been proposed, the three most common are habitat loss, competition with eastern cottontails, and hybridization with eastern cottontails. (Barry, et al., 2011; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

Contributors

Tessa Berenson (author), Yale University, Eric Sargis (editor), Yale University, Rachel Racicot (editor), Yale University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.

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).

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

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

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

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.

native range

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

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

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

2012. "Species Profile for New England Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus transitionalis)" (On-line). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed April 27, 2012 at http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A09B.

2012. "Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits" (On-line pdf). State of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection - Wildlife Division. Accessed April 27, 2012 at http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/wildlife/pdf_files/outreach/fact_sheets/ctntail.pdf.

Barry, R., J. Lazell, J. Litvaitis. 2011. "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed April 10, 2012 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/21212/0.

Burton, M., R. Burton. 2002. Cottontail. Pp. 545-548 in International Wildlife Encyclopedia, Vol. Chickaree - Crabs, 3 Edition. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. Accessed April 12, 2012 at http://books.google.com/books?id=BumyQJ14n8sC&pg=PA545&lpg=PA545&dq=sylvilagus+transitionalis+sense&source=bl&ots=9D9v3Euizh&sig=gtq6xpW5ydRMu4dZceillGam1TM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=nzaHT6OzBqXq0gHp8uHtBw&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sylvilagus%20transitionalis%20sense&f=false.

Chapman, J., J. Flux. 1990. Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland, Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Accessed February 14, 2012 at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Q994k86i0zYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=sylvilagus+transitionalis+mating&ots=RpnBPqPzM_&sig=E7aEVxay2j8rsztuq-plgdJinxg#v=onepage&q=sylvilagus%20transitionalis%20mating&f=false.

Chapman, J., J. Flux. 2008. Introduction to the Lagomorpha. Lagomorph Biology, 1: 1-9. Accessed February 15, 2012 at http://bilder.buecher.de/zusatz/22/22917/22917342_lese_1.pdf.

Kays, R., D. Vilson. 2009. Mammals of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Accessed February 14, 2012 at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YjIIRZwbWIEC&oi=fnd&pg=PA6&dq=sylvilagus+transitionalis+lifespan&ots=3bDWJXSL1K&sig=QVVTB3i56kLMgUcFFEJnG52G_Uc#v=onepage&q=sylvilagus%20transitionalis&f=false.

Litvaitis, J., W. Jakubas. 2004. "New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) Assessment 2004" (On-line pdf). Accessed April 27, 2012 at http://www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/species/plans/mammals/newenglandcottontail/speciesassessment.pdf.

Litvaitus, J., M. Barbour, A. Brown, A. Kovach, M. Litvaitus, J. Oehler, B. Probert, D. Smith, J. Tash, R. Villafuerte. 2008. Testing Multiple Hypotheses to Identify Causes of the Decline of a Lagomorph Species: The New England Cottontail as a Case Study. Lagomorph Biology, 2: 167-185. Accessed February 14, 2012 at http://www.springerlink.com/content/r661q637110l044v/fulltext.pdf.

Litvaitus, J., J. Tash. 2004. Species Profile: New England Cottontail. New Hampshire Wildlife Action Plan, 1: 303-312. Accessed February 14, 2012 at http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Wildlife_Plan/WAP_species_PDFs/Mammals/NewEnglandCotto.pdf.