Mammal Species of the World
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- Original description: Bangs, O., 1895. The geographical distribution of the eastern races of the cottontail (Lepus sylvaticus Bach.) with a description of a new subspecies, and with notes on the distribution of the northern hare (Lepus americanus Erxl.) in the east, p. 405. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, 26:404-414.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
Comments: Most commonly seen at dusk and dawn.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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).
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
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.
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).
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).
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).
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
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) 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.
New England cottontails are virtually identical to eastern cottontails. The only way to tell them apart unequivocally is to view skull characteristics or by DNA analysis. Generally, New England cottontails have slightly shorter ears and smaller bodies. New England cottontails have a black spot between their ears 90% of the time (compared to 40% in eastern), they always lack a white spot on the forehead (eastern has the white spot 43% of the time), and they have a black line on the front edge of the ear 95% of the time (easterns 40%).
Populations have declined by 86% over the past 50 years. Because of this decrease in this species' numbers and habitat, the New England cottontail is currently 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mass, Wildlife. "Cottontails in Massachusetts". Retrieved 4 July 2012.
- Hunting Small game in New Hampshire – N.H. Fish and Game
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).