Sylvilagus palustrismarsh rabbit

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Geographic Range

Sylvilagus palustris (marsh rabbit) is found in parts of the southeastern United States. Its range includes southeast Virginia, southern Georgia, eastern Alabama, the Florida peninsula, and the islands along the coast of Florida. The subspecies Sylvilagus palustris hefneri is endangered and its range is limited to the lower Florida Keys. Currently the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina has the largest population of marsh rabbits. ("Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries", 2007; Faulhaber, et al., 2006; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Habitat

Marsh rabbits are found in lowland areas, not exceeding 152 meters in elevation. They are found near freshwater marshes and estuarine areas. Marsh rabbits are semi-aquatic and require vegetation near a permanent source of water. (Jones, 1997; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 152 m
    0.00 to 498.69 ft

Physical Description

Marsh rabbits are medium-sized rabbits with short, rounded ears and small feet. The head and tail is smaller than those of easten cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus). Marsh rabbits are dark brown to reddish brown with a dark belly. The characteristic that distinguishes S. palustris from all other cottontail rabbits is the dark color of the underside of their tail. Other cottontail rabbits have white undersides to their tails. Marsh rabbits have sparse fur and remarkably long toenails on their hindfeet. There is no substantial sexual dimorphism. ("Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries", 2007; Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    1,200 to 2,200 g
    to oz
  • Range length
    425 to 440 mm
    16.73 to 17.32 in

Reproduction

Marsh rabbits are promiscuous, mating with multiple partners during the breeding season. Female marsh rabbits tend to be more territorial during this time. Male scrota descend only during the months of sexual activity. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997)

Marsh rabbits, like all cottontails, have induced ovulation. Pseudo-pregnancy may occur if a female receives stimulus from an infertile male or another female. Pseudo-pregnancy lasts only about half of the time of a normal gestation period, which is typically 28 to 37 days long. Their breeding season is February through September. During a single season a female may have up to four litters. Breeding may occur year round in southern Florida. Marsh rabbits have small litters, with two to four young. Litter reabsorptions, when a pregnancy is aborted and the nutrients of the unborn young are reabsorbed by the female, are uncommon in Sylvilagus palustris due to their small litter sizes. Less time is spent nursing, only about twelve to fifteen days. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    Marsh rabbits breed three to four times a year.
  • Breeding season
    In parts of their range marsh rabbits breed from February through September, they breed year-round in southern Florida.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 5
  • Average number of offspring
    2.3
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    28 to 37 days
  • Range weaning age
    12 to 15 days
  • Range time to independence
    12 to 15 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    219 days
    AnAge

Marsh rabbits are born blind and completely helpless. The young use their legs to crawl at birth, their eyes open in 4 to 5 days. Female marsh rabbits nurse their young until they are independent, at 12 to 15 days old. Nests and young are vulnerable to flooding. Male marsh rabbits are not involved in the care of their young. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997)

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

Lifespan/Longevity

Marsh rabbits can live up to four years in the wild, however, most do not live to be a year old. Immature marsh rabbits are most susceptible to predation. There is no available information about life expectancy in captivity. (Jones, 1997)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    7.6 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Marsh rabbits are solitary, although individuals may cluster in areas with dense resources. Female marsh rabbits are apt to be more territorial during the breeding season. Marsh rabbits sleep in nests made of grasses, weeds, and lined with rabbit fur. Male hierarchies are frequently observed in closely related species such as Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus aquaticus, although they have not been observed in marsh rabbits. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997; Faulhaber, et al., 2006)

Home Range

The ranges of same-sex individuals rarely overlap. Males tend to travel greater distances than do females. Juvenile males in particular have extensive home ranges. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997; Faulhaber, et al., 2006)

Communication and Perception

There is little information available on the methods of communication used by Sylvilagus palustris. The closely related species Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus aquaticus have been studied more intensely. Females charge and leap when in the presence of other marsh rabbits. Males display alert and submissive postures, while also showing a tendency to scratch, mount, and paw rake. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982)

Food Habits

Marsh rabbits are herbivorous and their diet varies according to seasonality. They eat a wide variety of vegetation including blackberries (Rubus ursinus), rhizomes, bulbs, marsh grasses, duck potato (Sagittatia fasciculata), cattails (Typha), centella (Centella respanda), marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle), and water hyacinths (Eichhornia crassipes). In the winter, when green vegetation is scarce, marsh rabbits resort to eating bark. ("Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries", 2007; Jones, 1997; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • flowers

Predation

Marsh rabbits are avid swimmers and often dive into water as a means of escape. They are nocturnal, which helps them to avoid detection by diurnal predators. During the day they often hide in dense vegetation for protection. Infant and juvenile marsh rabbits are especially vulnerable to eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) and water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus). The two predator species that have the most impact on populations of S. palustris are marsh hawks and great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Other raptors also prey on marsh rabbits, along with bobcats. Historically, red wolves preyed on marsh rabbits. In areas in which red wolves have been reintroduced, marsh rabbits are one of their dominant prey items. ("Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries", 2007; Jones, 1997)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Marsh rabbits are herbivorous and are important primary consumers. Marsh rabbits are preyed on by raptors and large snakes. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Marsh rabbits live near marshy, isolated areas away from humans. (Jones, 1997)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Marsh rabbits host ticks that carry Rocky Mountain Fever. Marsh rabbits are not known to destroy crops or have any sort of negative impact on human agricultural efforts. (Chapman and Feldhamer, 1982; Jones, 1997)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease

Conservation Status

Lower Key marsh rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri) are endangered due to habitat fragmentation. Lower Key marsh rabbits are unevenly distributed throughout the Lower Florida Keys. Conservation efforts include reintroduction efforts. Other subspecies of marsh rabbits may also be effected by habitat fragmentation, although none are currently considered endangered. (Faulhaber, et al., 2006)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Leah Thompson (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Stephen Frost (editor, instructor), University of Oregon.

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.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

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.

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)

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).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

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

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

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.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey. The Rabbits of North America. Washington D.C., USA: Washington Government Printing Office. 1909.

2007. "Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries" (On-line). Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). Accessed October 05, 2007 at http://www.dgif.state.va.us/wildlife/information/?s=050107.

Chapman, J., G. Feldhamer. 1982. Wild Mammals of North America. Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Faulhaber, C., N. Perry, N. Silvy, R. Lopez, P. Frank, M. Peterson. 2006. Reintroduction of Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits. Wildlife Society Bulletin, Vol. 34 Iss. 4: 1198-1202.

Faulhaber, C., N. Perry, N. Silvy, R. Lopez, P. Frank, P. Hughes, M. Peterson. 2007. Updated Distribution of the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit. Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol. 71 Iss. 1: 208-212.

Forys, E. 1996. Home Range and Movements of the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits in a Highly Fragmented Habitat. Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 77 Iss. 4: 1042-1048.

Jones, M. 1997. "North Carolina Wildlife Profiles" (On-line). Wildlife Profiles: Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. Accessed October 23, 2007 at http://www.ncwildlife.org/pg07_wildlifespeciescon/Profiles/rabbitmarsh.pdf.

Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington D.C., USA: Smithsonian Institution Press.