Mammal Species of the World
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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.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
- 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.
endemic to a single nation
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (20,000-2,500,000 square km (about 8000-1,000,000 square miles)) The New England cottontail previously was widely distributed in New England, extending north to Rutland, Vermont, southern New Hampshire, southwestern Maine, and southwest through eastern New York. The range has been reduced and fragmented. Currently the species is restricted to boreal/montane regions in southwestern Maine, central and southern New Hampshire, perhaps extreme southern Vermont (Litvaitis 1993), Massachusetts (except southeastern part), northern Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York east of the Hudson River (Chapman et al. 1992). Remnant populations are apparently restricted to 5 regions: 1) seacoast region of southern Maine and New Hampshire, 2) Merrimack River Valley of New Hampshire, 3) a portion of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 4) eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, and 5) portions of western Connecticut, eastern New York, and southwestern Massachusetts (Litvaitis et al. 2006).
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.
Range mass: 995 to 1347 g.
Range length: 398 to 439 mm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
- 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.
Length: 48 cm
Weight: 1347 grams
Size in North America
Range: 398-439 mm
Range: 995-1,347 g
Northern population differs from southern population in karyotype (2n=52 vs. 2n=46 in OBSCURUS) and in the adult skull being proportionately longer anteriorly and wider medially (Chapman et al. 1992, which see for the discriminant function analysis needed to identify specimens using skulls). Pelage characteristics are not diagnostic for distinguishing between the northern and southern populations.
This rabbit differs from S. FLORIDANUS in having the frontal-nasal suture jagged rather than smooth, lacking a distinct anterior supraorbital process, and having the tip of the posterior supraorbital process not fused to the frontal. Typically, in winter pelage, has dark spot between the ears and dark anterior edge of ears whereas S. FLORIDANUS does not (see Litvaitis et al. 1991 for additional information).
The introduced European hare (LEPUS EUROPAEUS) is much larger and brownish gray, and the snowshoe hare (LEPUS AMERICANUS) is white in winter and dark brown in summer, with large feet (Burt and Grossenheider 1976).
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.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest
- 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.
Habitat and Ecology
The diet of S. transitionalis includes a variety of herbaceous plants, fruits, and seeds, and in the winter it consumes woody species (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).
S. transitionalis has a typical litter size of 3.5, the average female produces 24 young annually (Chapman and Ceballos 1990). Adults range in size from 38.2 - 42.5 cm (USFWS 2007).
Habitat Type: Terrestrial
Comments: This species is associated with many different types of vegetation. It is now mainly restricted to boreal/montane habitats (Chapman et al. 1992). Early successional habitats apparently are important (Litvaitis 1992); this rabbit often occurs in disturbance patches where secondary succession has progressed about 10-25 years, yielding shrubs and woody seedlings/saplings (Litvaitis 1993). Large patches of habitat are most suitable (Barbour and Litvaitis 1992, 1993). In winter, sites with dense understory cover are preferred (Litvaitis 1993).
Nests are made in a depression on the ground, sometimes at the base of a stump, lined with grass and fur and capped with twigs and leaves. (Dalke 1942, Tefft and Chapman 1983). They are usually in brush or woods rather than grasslands (Dalke 1937).
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
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.
Plant Foods: leaves; wood, bark, or stems; flowers
Other Foods: dung
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore , Lignivore); coprophage
Comments: The diet includes mostly forbs, with some grass and woody material, in spring and summer, but the winter diet is mostly twigs, bark, and buds of woody species. In periods of snow, the diet may be entirely evergreen needles such as hemlock (TSUGA) and spruce (PICEA). Oak (QUERCUS) and maple (ACER) are also preferred woody foods in New England. Hawthorn (CRATAEGUS) fruits are eaten in autumn. Nottage (1972) believed the New England cottontail to be more restricted in its choice of foods than the eastern cottontail.
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.
- ticks (Ixodidae)
- fleas (Pulicidae)
- fleas (Leptopsyllidae)
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.
- weasels (Mustela)
- domestic cats (Felis catus)
- foxes (Vulpes)
- birds of prey (Falconiformes)
- coyotes (Canis latrans)
- bobcats (Lynx rufus)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 1 - 20
Comments: This species was represented by a large number of historical occurrences (subpopulations), but now the number is much smaller. The current distribution is fragmented into five apparently isolated (and relatively large) core areas (Litvaitis et al. 2006, USFWS 2006).
10,000 - 100,000 individuals
Comments: Total adult population size is unknown but presumably exceeds 10,000.
Home range in northern populations varies from less than an 0.5 ha to around 3-4 ha (Dalke 1942). Home range sometimes tends to be linear, as when along brushy borders of marshes and fields.
Fairly uncommon in much of range. Estimated density in New Hampshire was 0.3-7/ha (Barbour and Litvaitis 1993).
In New Hampshire, populations in small habitat patches had a lower mean condition index and lower winter survival than did populations in larger habitat patches; this was due in part to increased use of suboptimal habitat in small habitat patches (Barbour and Litvaitis 1992).
The New England cottontail is presumably subject to the same predators as other rabbits (e.g. fox, coyote, bobcat, weasels, domestic dog and cat, humans, large snakes and various raptors). Parasites include ticks, fleas, botflies, tapeworms, and roundworms (Chapman 1975).
Many populations may be suffering from competition with eastern cottontails (see threats).
Juvenile mortality is high.
Life History and Behavior
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.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Comments: Most commonly seen at dusk and dawn.
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.
Status: wild: 3 years.
- 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.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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.
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.
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.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
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.
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)
- 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.
- 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.
Breeding season is January to September, peaking from March to July. The gestation period is 28 days. Litter size is genrally 3-5 or occasionally up to 8, with up to several litters per year. Litters are smaller but more numerous than in the eastern cottontail, resulting in about the same productivity. Most individuals first breed in their second season, but 18% of pregnancies are in juveniles. The sex ratio of adults is 57 males to 100 females (Dalke 1942, Chapman et al. 1977).
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.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
- 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.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Populations in New England and adjacent eastern New York are experiencing a loss of habitat due to fragmentation and successional change; populations tend to be small and isolated; there are also potential competitive problems related to the range expansion of the introduced eastern cottontail.
Environmental Specificity: Very narrow. Specialist or community with key requirements scarce.
Lead Region: Northeast Region (Region 5)
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Sylvilagus transitionalis, see its USFWS Species Profile
Global Short Term Trend: Decline of 10-30%
Comments: Based on current land uses, the loss of about 2 percent of the current range per year is expected to continue (USFS 2006); remaining populations in Maine are vulnerable to extirpation (Litvaitis et al. 2003).
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of 70-90%
Comments: Range has decreased by more than 85 percent over the past several decades (Litvaitis et al. 2006, USFWS 2006). Occupied range has contracted from approximately 90,000 sq km to 12,180 sq km, and much of the suitable habitat within the current range is in small patches that are not occupied (Litvaitis et al. 2006, USFWS 2006). A multi-state, regional inventory conducted in 2001-2004 found that New England cottontails were absent from 93% of approximately 2,300 habitat patches within the recent historical range (1990 to present) that were searched for the presence of the species (Litvaitis et al. 2006, USFWS 2006). Many of the occupied sites were quite small (3 acres or less) and are considered by some researchers to be population "sinks" (Litvaitis et al. 2006, USFWS 2006).
S. transitionalis has historically declined due to maturation of second-growth forests and fragmentation of suitable habitat (Litvaitis et al. 2006). The conversion of native shrublands to other land uses, confusion with S. floridanus by sportsmen, and lack of education on existence, biology, and habitat requirements of this species cause problems for the conservation of this species.
Competition and possible hybridization with S. floridanus are likely to be placing pressure on S. transitionalis populations (Litvaitis et al. 2006).
Degree of Threat: High
Comments: The decline has been attributed to habitat changes and introductions of Sylvilagus floridanus. Litvaitis et al. (2006) concluded that forest maturation and fragmentation are the most plausible explanations for the widespread decline. In New Hampshire, loss of early successional habitats (due to forest maturation after farm abandonment) was accompanied by a large decline in the distribution of cottontails (Litvaitis 1992, 1993). Habitat changes resulting from an increase in non-native invasive plants and from effects of feeding by large deer populations possibly may be negatively affecting New England cottontail populations (USFWS 2006). Barbour and Litvaitis (1993) found that New England cottontails in small habitat patches apparently had lower survival rates and skewed sex ratios. Small, isolated populations are vulnerable to extirpation by chance events (Kirtland 1986). Introductions of exotic subspecies of Sylvilagus floridanus may have broadened the ecological tolerances of Sylvilagus floridanus and improved its ability to outcompete S. transitionalis (see Handley 1991, Litvaitis 1993).
Very little good habitat for S. transitionalis is protected, and tracts of scrub oak barrens should be purchased and protected. Conservation of critical habitat and establishment and management of “Important Mammal Areas” containing known populations, with appropriate publicity and public education programs should be implemented.
S. transitionalis is in need of more research, including surveying and population monitoring, research on nest sites, dispersal, habitat, use of corridors, response to climatic change and stochastic events, effects of sport hunting, competition with other lagomorphs, and response to invasive vegetative species.
Captive breeding and reintroductions may be beneficial once suitable habitat has been established and protected.
Restoration Potential: It appears likely that in prime habitat New England cottontails may be able to hold their own against eastern cottontails, perhaps because of their better adaptation to cold and to sites with continuous dense cover (Chapman et al. 1977). It may therefore be possible to restore them to some areas from which they have been extirpated.
Before reintroduction of New England cottontails to a segment of appropriate habitat, it is desirable to determine that they are indeed extirpated from the locality. Absence of the eastern cottontail would probably also favor success. It is always preferable that stock for reintroduction come from nearby populations, but it is less critical in this case than with many species because of the low genetic variability within S. TRANSITIONALIS.
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: To sustain the species in Vermont, Litvaitis (1993) recommended that restoration sites (early successional habitats in forest-dominated landscapes) be at least 5 ha and clustered to facilitate exchange between patches and to limit fragmentation of mature forests. Maintaining large blocks of essentially unbroken forest might provide a competitive advantage to New England cottontails over eastern cottontails. Although both species prefer early successional habitat, the New England cottontail is apparently better adapted to forest and unbroken dense cover than is the eastern cottontail.
Management Requirements: Management procedures should encourage the maintenance of large blocks of shrubby, early successional habitats (Chapman et al. 1982, Litvaitis 1993).
As with other cottontail species, providing escape cover is probably the easiest way to increase numbers. Brushpiles are a temporary (3-5 year) solution; establishing dense shrubs is more long-term (Chapman et al. 1982).
To avoid competitive interactions, introductions of other SYLVILAGUS species should be prevented.
"Because the New England and eastern cottontails are so similar externally, it would be difficult to promulgate laws to control the shooting of New England cottontails; however, restrictions on the hunting of any cottontails within certain forested habitats might prove effective in decreasing mortality in the New England cottontail." (Kirkland 1985). Chapman and Fuller (1975) suggested that such refuges could forestall eventual extermination of the species.
Management Programs: The New England cottontail is included on the Forest Service Region 9 Sensitive Species list and consequently will be considered in all planning and activity wherever it is likely to occur on the national forests. Contact the U.S. Forest Service, Region 9, 310 W. Wisconsin Ave., Room 500, Milwaukee, WI 53203, tel. 414-291-3600.
Monitoring Programs: Occurrences of New England cottontails are monitored by most natural heritage programs.
Management Research Needs: Research is needed on the effect of habitat management practices--which ones favor S. TRANSITIONALIS over S. FLORIDANUS? How is population persistence related to population size (or size of occupied habitat patch) in isolated populations?
Biological Research Needs: Better information is needed on the impact of introduced Sylvilagus populations. Minimum population size needed to maintain viability in fragmented habitats should be investigated.
Global Protection: Few to several (1-12) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: It is estimated that less than one-third of the cuurently occupied sites occur on lands in conservation status, and fewer than 10 percent of these sites in conservation status are being managed for early successional forest species such as the New England cottontail (USFWS 2006).
Needs: Protection of large tracts of habitat is the primary need. Where they do not already exist, strong regulations are needed to control the importation and release of other Sylvilagus species within the historic range of the New England cottontail.
Due to the difficulty of identifying the New England cottontail in the field, Kirkland (in Genoways and Brenner 1985) suggested that restricting hunting within certain forested habitats might prove effective in decreasing New England cottontail mortality. Chapman and Fuller (1975) stated that such refuges could forestall the eventual extermination of the species. However, Litvaitis (pers. comm. 1994) stated that hunting is an unimportant mortality factor, especially in relation to habitat loss (Litvaitis 1993).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
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.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (causes disease in humans ); causes or carries domestic animal disease
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.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; research and education
Stewardship Overview: The New England cottontail has experienced significant decline in recent years, probably due to habitat alteration and consequent increased competition with the eastern cottontail. Enhanced adaptability of the eastern cottontail due to interbreeding with stocked cottontails from the west may be a factor.
Maintenance of some large blocks of boreal forest without significant openings would provide refuges where this species would have a competitive advantage. Species- specific restriction of hunting seems neither practical nor necessary at present.
Litvaitis et al. (2006) recommend the following: at the population or landscape scale, current land uses should guide habitat manipulations that expand existing populations; at the regional scale, consideration should be given to increasing dispersal among remnant populations, possibly by generating "stepping stones" of suitable habitat.
New England cottontail
The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), also called the gray rabbit, brush rabbit, wood hare, wood rabbit, or cooney, is a species of cottontail rabbit represented by fragmented populations in areas of New England, specifically from southern Maine to southern New York. This species bears a close resemblance to the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), which has been introduced in much of the New England Cottontail home range. The eastern cottontail is now more common in it.
Litvaitis et al. (2006) estimated that the current area of occupancy in its historic range is 12,180 km² - some 86% less than the occupied range in 1960. Because of this decrease in this species' numbers and habitat, the New England cottontail is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Cottontail hunting has been restricted in some areas where the eastern and New England cottontail species coexist in order to protect the remaining New England cottontail population.
Rabbits require habitat patches of at least 12 acres to maintain a stable population. In New Hampshire, the number of suitable patches dropped from 20 to 8 in the early 2000s. The ideal habitat is 25 acres of continuous early successional habitat within a larger landscape that provides shrub wetlands and dense thickets. Federal funding has been used for habitat restoration work on state lands, including the planting of shrubs and other growth critical to the rabbit's habitat. Funding has also been made available to private landowners who are willing to create thicket-type brush habitat which doesn't have much economic value.
New England cottontails lives in New England region of the United States; habitat destruction has limited its modern range to less than 25 percent of its historic range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) explains that:
- 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.
The major factor in the decline of the New England cottontail population and the restriction of its range is habitat destruction from the reduced thicket habitat. Before European settlement, New England cottontails were likely found along river valleys, where disturbances in the forest—such as beaver activity, ice storms, hurricanes, and wildfires—promoted thicket growth. The clearing of much of the New England forest, as well as development, has eliminated a large portion of New England cottontail habitat. Other species that depend on thickets - including some birds (such as the American woodcock, eastern towhee, golden-winged warbler, blue-winged warbler, yellow-breasted chat, brown thrasher, prairie warbler and indigo bunting) and reptiles (such as the black racer, smooth green snake and wood turtle) have also declined.
Various other factors also contributed to the decline of New England cottontails:
- The introduction of more than 200,000 eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) in the early 20th century, mostly by hunting clubs, greatly harmed the New England cottontail because the eastern cottontails are a generalist species are able to survive in a wife variety of habitats (fields, farms and forest edges) and have a slightly better ability to avoid predators. The competition from the eastern cottontail led to the displacement of the New England cottontail.
- The introduction of invasive plant species such as multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), honeysuckle bush (Lonicera maackii), and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) in the 20th century may have also displaced many native species that the New England cottontail relied upon for food.
- An increase in the population and density of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the same range as the New England cottontail also damaged populations, because deer eat many of the same plants and damage the density of understory plants providing vital thicket habitat.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Rhode Island reported that a survey found that the New England cottontail was on the verge of extirpation from Rhode Island, because of habitat loss, competition from eastern cottontails, and increased predator populations. The URI study collected nearly one thousand pellet samples from more than one hundred locations; DNA testing of the samples showed that only one contained the DNA of the New England cottontail. A habitat analysis was conducted on an island in Narragansett Bay with no known past population by either cottontail species, as a possible refugium for the New England cottontail.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation also states that the New England cottontail is found in New York, but notes that its range is the state has been dramatically reduced because of habitat destruction and competition with the more common Eastern cottontail. Moreover, the New England cottontail and the Eastern cottontail look nearly identical. As a result it is difficult to determine the New England cottontails' distribution. The NYSDEC's New England Cottontail Initiative encourages rabbit hunters to submit whole heads from rabbits they have harvested east of the Hudson River to the Department so they can be examined to help determine the range.
According to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the New England occurs on Nantucket. Formerly, the last occurrence was thought to be on the late 1990s, but the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and FWS believes that because the island still contained large shrubland habitat areas, there might still be a remnant New England cottontail population on the island. In 2013, a DNA sample from a rabbit captured on Nantucket Conservation Foundation-owned Ram Pasture property in 2011 tested positive as a New England cottontail, showing that the rabbit still exists on Nantucket.
The New England cottontail is a habitat specialist. It thrives in early successional forests—young forests (usually less than twenty-five years old) with a dense understory of thick, tangled vegetation (scrubland/brushland), preferably of blueberry or mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Studies indicate that these forests matured into closed-canopy stands and the shrub layer began to thin in the 1960s, the New England cottontail habit declined.
New England cottontails prefer woodlands with higher elevation or northern latitudes. They create nests in depressions, some 12 cm deep by 10 cm wide, lining them with grasses and fur. According to studies, England cottontails "rarely venture more than 5 m from cover."
The New England cottontail is a medium-sized rabbit almost identical to the eastern cottontail. The two species look nearly identical, and can only be reliably distinguished by genetic testing of tissue, through fecal samples (i.e., of rabbit pellets), or by a examination of the rabbits' skulls, which shows a key morphological distinction: the frontonasal skull sutures of eastern cottontail are smooth lines, while the New England cottontails' are jagged or interdigitated. The New England cottontail also typically has black hair between and on the anterior surface of the ear, which the Eastern cottontails lacks.
The New England cottontail weighs between 995 and 1347 g and is between 398 and 439 mm long, with dark brown coats with a "penciled effect" and tails with white undersides. They are sexually dimorphic, with females larger than males.
Known predators of New England cottontails include weasels (Mustela), domestic cats (Felis catus), true foxes (Vulpes), birds of prey (Falconiformes), coyotes (Canis latrans), and bobcats (Lynx rufus). To avoid predators, the New England cottontails run for cover; "freeze" and rely on their cryptic coloration; or, when running, follow a zig-zag pattern to confuse the predator. Because New England cottontail habitat is small and has less vegetative cover, they must forage more often in the open, leaving them vulnerable.
Reproduction and development
New England cottontails breed two to three times a year. Generally, the testes of the male New England cottontails begin to enlarge in late December. The breeding season varies based on local elevation and latitude, and can span from January to September. The breeding season in Connecticut lasts from mid-March to mid-September, while the breeding season in Maine lasts from April to August. Pregnant female New England cottontails appear between April and August. The gestation period is around twenty-eight days. Litter size ranges from three to eight, with an average of 5.2 (as given by one source) or 3.5 (as given by another). Generally, cottontails who live in more northern habitats have shorter gestation periods and larger litters, so they produce more litters during warmer weather.
During the mating season, "male New England cottontails form breeding groups around dominant females in areas of the habitat with plentiful food and good cover." New England cottontails conduct a courtship display involving running and jumping, including jumping of one rabbit 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 [birth] and nursing to avoid harassment by males." Generally New England cottontails will "copulate again immediately following parturition."
Like all cottontails, the New England cottontail has a short lifespan, typically surviving no more than three years in the wild. Moreover, an average of only 15 percent of young survive their first year. New England cottontails reach sexual maturity early, at no more than one year old, and many juvenile New England cottontails will breed in their first season.
Young are born naked with their eyes closed. Parental investment is minimal: there is no investment by male cottontails, and female cottontails nurse their young in the nest for about 16 days, often having mated again by the time the juveniles have left the nest.
New England cottontails are herbivores whose diet varies based on the season and local forage opportunities. In the spring and summer, the New England cottontails primarily eats herbaceous plants (including leaves, stems, wood, bark, flowers, fruits, and seeds) from grasses and forbs. Beginning in the fall and continuing into the winter, New England cottontails transition to mostly woody plants.
The New England cottontail has been listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 1996. The species is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (see United States Fish and Wildlife Service list of endangered species of mammals) and is listed as endangered on state-level lists of Maine and New Hampshire.
The New England cottontail is listed as "vulnerable" because of its decreasing population and reduction in suitable habitat. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is surveying suitable habitat for this species. Due to its rarity, elusiveness, and the fact that it is nearly identical to the Eastern cottontail, DNA analysis of fecal pellets one of the best ways to identify New England cottontail populations. New England cottontails are listed as "endangered" in New Hampshire and Maine, "Extirpated" in Vermont and Quebec, "species of special concern" in New York and Connecticut, and a "species of special interest" in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Surveys are being conducted to identify areas for creating suitable habitat and to identify areas with suitable habitat that may contain remnant populations. Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Connecticut are primary areas that may hold populations of the species. The USFWS has discovered populations in Nantucket and Eastern Connecticut. Additional surveys are being done to find more remnant populations in New England and New York.
In 2013, the State of Connecticut embarked on a habitat restoration project in Litchfield County, clearing 57 acres of mature woods to create a meadowland and second-growth forest needed by the rabbit.
- Hoffman, R. S.; Smith, A. T. (2005). "Order Lagomorpha". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
- Barry, R., Lazell, J. & Litvaitis, J. (2008). "Sylvilagus transitionalis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 27 January 2010.
- Sylvilagus transitionalis (New England Cottontail, Wood Rabbit), IUCN.
- Species profile, New England Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus transitionalis), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Marianne K. Litvaitis; John A. Litvaitis (1996). "Using Mitochondrial DNA to Inventory the Distribution of Remnant Populations of New England Cottontails". Wildlife Society Bulletin 24 (4): 725–730. JSTOR 3783166.
- Keefe, Jennifer (April 24, 2011). "Cottontail gets help with habitat restoration". Foster's Daily Democrat. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
- Hunting Small game in New Hampshire – N.H. Fish and Game
- Tessa Berenson, Sylvilagus transitionalis (New England cottontail), Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionali).
- New England Cottontail, Rabbit at risk - Frequently asked questions, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- URI, DEM researchers: New England cottontail on verge of disappearing from Rhode Island, University of Rhode Island, September 14, 2011.
- New England Cottontail Survey, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
- Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), Nantucket Conservation Foundation.
- Karen C. Beattie, Update: New England Cottontails Documented on Nantucket!, Nantucket Conservation Foundation's Science and Stewardship Department, November 22, 2013.
- Mark Elbroch, Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species, Stackpole Books (2006), p. 247.
- Rabbit at Risk: Conserving the New England cottontail, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2011).
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Populations west and south of the Hudson River, formerly included in S. transitionalis, are now recognized as a distinct species (Sylvilagus obscurus). Chapman et al. (1992) distinguished S. obscurus from S. transitionalis on the basis of karyotype (2n=46 in the former, 2n=52 in the latter; Ruedas 1989) and certain cranial ratios. However, patterns of mtDNA variation are not consistent with the recognition of S. obscurus and S. transitionalis as separate species (Litvaitis et al. 1997). Nevertheless, without comment, Baker et al. (2003) listed S. obscurus and S. transitionalis as distinct species. Hoffmann and Smith (in Wilson and Reeder 2005) did not review the status of S. obscurus in any detail but simply noted the exisitence of the two cytotypes and listed S. obscurus and S. transitionalis as separate species.
Widespread introductions of S. floridanus and habitat changes have resulted in apparent hybridization between S. transitionalis and S. floridanus. However, mtDNA data indicate that hybridization is not occurring between S. floridanus and S. transitionalis (Litvaitis et al. 1997).
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