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Overview

Brief Summary

Description

Marsh Rabbits live only in marshy areas, and like Swamp Rabbits, are good swimmers. They are often found in habitats with pools of brackish water and plants such as cattails, water hyacinth, rush, centella, and marsh pennywort. They feed on all of these plants, and build nests of soft grass and fur in sedges at the edge of the water. Marsh Rabbits have relatively small litters of 2 or 3 after a gestation of about 30-37 days.

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  • Original description: Bachman, J., 1837.  Description of a new species of hare found in South Carolina.  Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 7:194-199.
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Distribution

Range Description

Sylvilagus palustris occurs in the south-eastern coastal lowlands of the United States from the Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia, through eastern North Carolina, southeastern South Carolina, southern Georgia, southern Alabama, and most of Florida, excluding the extreme southeast, but including the Lower Keys of Florida (Chapman and Willner 1981; Chapman and Ceballos 1990).

S. p. hefneri:

S. p. hefneri is restricted to the Upper and Lower Keys of Florida (Chapman and Ceballos 1990). Historically, the subspecies probably occupied all keys with suitable habitat in the Lower Keys. Currently, S. p. hefneri can be found on only 4 of the larger keys (Boca Chica, Saddlebunch, Sugarloaf, and Big Pine Keys) and on some of the surrounding smaller keys. More than 50% of the total occupied habitat was found on Big Pine and Boca Chica keys during a 2001-2005 survey (Faulhaber et al. 2007). This survey also concluded a net loss of occupied patches compared to a conglomerate of surveys conducted between 1988-1995 (see discussion for possible cause) (Faulhaber et al. 2007). The greatest loss of occupancy occurred on Saddlebunch Keys (Faulhaber et al. 2007). There is a gap in the rabbit's current distribution between Big Pine Key and Sugarloaf Key, and the rabbit has been extirpated on Key West (Faulhaber 2003). A recent phylogenetic analysis determined that populations on either side of the gap island complex (islands extending from Middle Torch Key to Cudjoe Key) represent distinct haplogroups with little gene flow between the two (Crouse 2005). However, the author notes that an investigation of more individuals from a greater variety of locations east of the gap would elucidate the degree of geographic separation (Crouse 2005). Fecal pellets of S. p. hefneri were discovered in a single patch on No Name Key in 2001 but have not been located on the island since (Faulhaber 2003).

S. p. hefneri exists as a metapopulation in small patches of brackish and freshwater wetland habitat. A distribution survey conducted by Faulhaber (2003) found 535 ha of occupied habitat and 266 ha of potential habitat. However, because the subspecies exists as a metapopulation, the area of occupancy varies through time. These estimates are conservative, as they only included areas of known use (e.g. areas with fecal pellets or sightings of individuals). It is possible that these estimates underestimate the area of occupancy, because the degree of use of adjacent, "unsuitable" vegetation types (e.g. upland hardwood hammocks, pinelands, and mangrove swamps) could not be determined. The greatest abundance of the subspecies occurs on Boca Chica, Saddlebunch, Sugarloaf, and Big Pine Keys.

The current extent of occurrence for the subspecies S. p. hefneri is 90 km² (Faulhaber 2003).
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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.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • 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.
  • Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington D.C., USA: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • 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.
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endemic to a single nation

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National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: (20,000-2,500,000 square km (about 8000-1,000,000 square miles)) Coastal southeastern U.S. from southeastern Virginia (locally common, Handley 1991) to Alabama. Rarely occurs above elevation of 500 ft.

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Physical Description

Morphology

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.

Range mass: 1,200 to 2,200 g.

Range length: 425 to 440 mm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

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

Length: 45 cm

Weight: 1600 grams

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Size in North America

Sexual Dimorphism: None

Length:
Average: 433 mm
Range: 425-440 mm

Weight:
Range: 1,200-2,200 g
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Diagnostic Description

Differs from other sympatric rabbits by lacking white on the underside of the tail.

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Sylvilagus palustris occurs in marshy habitats, mostly with brackish waters, but is also known to occur along freshwater wetlands (Tomkins 1935; Chapman and Ceballos 1990). It has also been documented in grassy fields; mangroves; hammocks; fallow tomato fields; and “rank vegetation” along canals, ditches, roadsides, and cultivated fields (Carr 1939; Schwartz 1952; Layne 1974). It is a nocturnal species that often walks as opposed to hopping and is a good swimmer (Chapman and Ceballos 1990).

Reproduction occurs all year for S. palustris, with around six litters annually per each adult female, with approximately three young per litter (Chapman and Ceballos 1990). Gestation is approximately 39-40 days (Hamilton and Whitaker 1979). The diet of S. palustris includes a variety of aquatic plants, herbaceous material from shrubs, trees, and woody plants, cultivated crops (Chapman and Willner 1981), as well as grasses, sedges, and flowers (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).


S. p. hefneri:

S. p hefneri is usually found in saltmarsh/buttonwood transition zones and freshwater marshes within the Lower Keys (Forys et al. 1996; Faulhaber 2003). The saltmarsh/buttonwood transition zone forms the transition between lowland mangrove areas and upland hardwood hammocks and pineland. This transition zone can be subdivided into: 1) an intertidal marsh, occurring at lower elevations and characterized by low halophytic vegetation; 2) a grassy saltmarsh, which occurs at slightly higher elevations and is dominated by grasses and Cyperaceae; and 3) buttonwood transitional vegetation, consisting of grasses and Cyperaceae with an open canopy of buttonwood transitional habitat for foraging and daytime resting sites (Forys 1995). Forys (1995) found that the grassy saltmarsh was commonly used for nests. Rabbits also forage in the intertidal marsh and mangroves, and they occasionally use mangroves for daytime form sites (Forys 1995; Faulhaber 2003).

Freshwater wetlands used by S. p. hefneri are usually dominated by sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) and often include patches of buttonwood trees or other hardwoods (Faulhaber 2003). Faulhaber (2003) noted that rabbits on Boca Chica Key inhabited disturbed mesic grasslands dominated by Schizachyrium gracile, with patches of invasive exotic lead tree (Leucaena leucocephala) used for cover. Historically, S. p. hefneri also was found on coastal beach berms (United States Fish and Wildlife Service 1999).

S. p. hefneri exists as a metapopulation in small patches of habitat spread throughout the Lower Keys (Forys and Humphrey 1996). Adult rabbits establish permanent home ranges within these patches, with same sex ranges rarely overlapping (Forys 1995). The average home range reported by Forys and Humphrey (1996) was 3.96 ha, while data collected by Faulhaber (2003) suggests a mean home range of 1.2 ha . Females reproduce year-round, with a mean of 3.7 litters per year and 1-3 young per litter (Forys 1995). The reproductive rate of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit may be lower than that of other subspecies; Holler and Conaway (1979) noted a mean of 5.7 litters per year with 2-4 young per litter for S. p. paludicola. Young leave the nest after about 2 weeks and often disperse from their natal patch after 8-10 months (Forys 1995). Dispersal appears to be male-biased, and dispersing rabbits tend to use thick cover and native vegetation types rather than disturbed areas (Forys 1995).

Known predators of the S. p. hefneri include raptors, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus), and raccoons (Procyon lotor) (Howe 1988; Forys 1995).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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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.

Range elevation: 0 to 152 m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial ; freshwater

Aquatic Biomes: brackish water

Wetlands: marsh

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Comments: Confined solely to marshy habitats along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Prefers relatively undisturbed marshes (Handley 1991). May also be found around inland lakes. Availability of water is the most important factor limiting the distribution (Blair 1936). Does not occupy burrows. Good swimmer. Nests usually are in grassy vegetation adjacent to water bodies.

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Migration

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.

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Trophic Strategy

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.

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

Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )

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Comments: Feeds on a variety of plant material (grasses, forbs, leaves, twigs), much of it aquatic emergents.

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Associations

Ecosystem Roles

Marsh rabbits are herbivorous and are important primary consumers. Marsh rabbits are preyed on by raptors and large snakes.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

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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.

Known Predators:

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Known predators

Sylvilagus palustris (waterfowl, marsh rabbits, deer, water rat) is prey of:
Lynx rufus

Based on studies in:
USA: Florida, South Florida (Swamp)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • L. D. Harris and G. B. Bowman, Vertebrate predator subsystem. In: Grasslands, Systems Analysis and Man, A. I. Breymeyer and G. M. Van Dyne, Eds. (International Biological Programme Series, no. 19, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England, 1980), pp. 591-
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Known prey organisms

Sylvilagus palustris (waterfowl, marsh rabbits, deer, water rat) preys on:
Tracheobionta

Based on studies in:
USA: Florida, South Florida (Swamp)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • L. D. Harris and G. B. Bowman, Vertebrate predator subsystem. In: Grasslands, Systems Analysis and Man, A. I. Breymeyer and G. M. Van Dyne, Eds. (International Biological Programme Series, no. 19, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England, 1980), pp. 591-
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General Ecology

Relatively small home range; on Hog Island, Virginia, distance between captures was 31-183 m (Handley 1991). Major predators are the great horned owl and northern harrier. Fires may cause extensive mortality.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

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.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic

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Cyclicity

Comments: Usually nocturnal; the variable tide levels with which it is commonly associated may necessitate periodic diurnal activity. Most active between 1900 and 0400 hours (Blair 1936).

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Life Expectancy

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.

Typical lifespan

Status: wild:
4 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
7.6 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 7.6 years (captivity) Observations: One captive specimen lived 7.6 years (Richard Weigl 2005).
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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.

Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)

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.

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.

Range gestation period: 28 to 37 days.

Range weaning age: 12 to 15 days.

Range time to independence: 12 to 15 days.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); induced ovulation ; viviparous

Average number of offspring: 2.3.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)

Sex: female:
219 days.

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.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)

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Breeds probably year-round in Georgia and south Florida. Gestation lasts 30-37 days (Holler and Conaway 1979). Theoretically, 6-7 litters may be produced per year. Average litter size is 3-5.

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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2008

Assessor/s
Faulhaber, C.A. & Smith, A.T.

Reviewer/s
Boyer, A.F. & Johnston, C.H. (Lagomorph Red List Authority)

Contributor/s

Justification
Sylvilagus palustris is a widespread species, known to be abundant in some parts of its range, particularly along the Ogeechee, Satilla, and St. Mary’s Rivers in Georgia (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). Only the subspecies S. p. hefneri is experiencing severe decline, restricted area of occupancy, severely fragmented populations, and small population size (Faulhaber 2003).

The subspecies S. p. hefneri meets IUCN Red List Criteria B1ab(ii) and B2ab(ii) for Critically Endangered. First, based on surveys conducted from 2001-2004 by C.A. Faulhaber and N. Perry of Texas A&M University (2003), the subspecies' extent of occurrence is 90 km², and the area of occupancy is less than 10 km². Faulhaber (2003) mapped 523 ha of occupied habitat and 278 ha of potential habitat in the rabbit's range, with no key containing more than 290 ha of suitable habitat. Also, S. p. hefneri populations are "severely fragmented." S. p. hefneri has been known to disperse as far as 2 km (Forys and Humphrey 1996), so most patches within keys are likely part of the same "subpopulation." All of these subpopulations are relatively small (less than 250 mature adults) and isolated from one another. Finally, the area of occupancy has declined over the past 10 years. A distribution survey conducted between 2001 and 2003 found a net loss of nine of the 76 patches identified in surveys conducted from 1988-1996 (Faulhaber 2003). Because the rabbit occurs as a metapopulation, local extinctions and recolonization are expected to occur (Forys 1995, Forys and Humphrey 1996, Faulhaber 2003). However, most of the recently extirpated patches are unlikely to be recolonized due to habitat fragmentation and isolation (Faulhaber 2003).
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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.

US Federal List: endangered

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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National NatureServe Conservation Status

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

Reasons: Locally common in the coastal southeastern U.S.

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Status

The subspecies Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit, is Endangered.
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Population

Population
Other than the Lower Keys subspecies, little is known about the populations of Sylvilagus palustris, but it is known to be locally abundant in favorable habitat, with the largest populations occurring along the Ogeechee, Satilla, and St. Mary’s rivers in Georgia (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

S. p. hefneri:

Once common in the Lower Keys, S. p. hefneri is now rare and has become extirpated on several islands within its range. In 1999, the United State Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that only 100-300 adults remained (Faulhaber 2003). A widened search led to the discovery of additional occupied habitat patches from 2001-2003. However, the overall population size remains low. A recent study by Faulhaber (2003) at Texas A&M University estimated that the current population contains 200-700 mature individuals, with no key containing more than 250 mature individuals. A PVA model using data collected from 1991-1993 predicted that the species would have a 100% probability of extinction in 50 years (Forys 1995; Forys and Humphrey 1999).

S. p. hefneri occurs as a metapopulation in small habitat patches on 4 larger keys and several smaller surrounding islands. A distribution survey conducted between 2001-2003 mapped 220 patches of occupied (n=102) and potential (n=118) habitat ranging in size from 0.1-51 ha. The median patch size was 2.4 ha (interquartile range = 0.7-5.1 ha) (Faulhaber 2003). Some of these patches may be part of the same local population; Faulhaber (2003) hypothesized that the occupied patches are arranged into 56 occupied local populations. These local populations interact through dispersing individuals. Dispersal may be frequent enough that these local populations do not fit the IUCN's definition of "subpopulations." Lower Keys marsh rabbits have been known to disperse as far as 2 km (Forys and Humphrey 1996), so most patches within keys are likely part of the same "subpopulation."

However, although the species is thought to be an excellent swimmer (Tomkins 1935), the rate of genetic exchange between keys is unknown (researchers at Texas A&M University were examining this issue at the time of writing). Certainly, rabbits on Big Pine Key and its surrounding islands are isolated from rabbits on Boca Chica, Saddlebunch, and Sugarloaf keys. Moreover, rabbits have not naturally recolonized the keys between Big Pine Key and Sugarloaf Key, indicating that the interchange of dispersers among keys is probably low. The Lower Keys marsh rabbit may therefore be separated into three large subpopulations (Boca Chica Key, Saddlebunch/Sugarloaf complex, and Big Pine Key) and several small subpopulations on outer islands (Faulhaber 2003).

Population Trend
Unknown
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Threats

Major Threats
Sylvilagus palustris is considered an agricultural pest in some areas, especially in sugarcane fields of southern Florida (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). They are hunted in the southern United States (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

S. p. hefneri:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed S. p. hefneri as endangered in 1990. The primary reason cited for listing the species was the loss and fragmentation of its habitat due to human development. Over the last 25 years, greater than 50% of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit's habitat was lost to human development. Human development has also resulted in increased isolation for some patches, reducing the likelihood of recolonization. Although the rate of habitat loss has slowed since the rabbit received legal protection, habitat destruction and fragmentation remain significant threats to the species' persistence (Faulhaber 2003). LaFever et al. (2007) modelled the potential impact resulting from oceanic rise, due to thermal expansion only, on S. palustris habitat. They found that the three most important factors impacting potential change were: the rate at which sea-level rise impacts the ability of flora migration upslope, the magnitude in terms of the overall oceanic rise and whether it is great enough to reach S. palustris habitat, and whether or not humans abandon low-lying habitat, where abandonment would facilitate greater ease of upslope migration by vegetation. They concluded that non-static strategies needed to be implemented regarding management of the local ecosystem (i.e. consideration of land-use planning, use of bioclimatic reserve systems in conjunction with corridors) (LaFever et al. 2007).


Additional threats to the subspecies include mortality from cars and cats, both domestic and feral. Cars and cats accounted for more than half of the mortalities observed by E.A. Forys on Boca Chica in the early 1990s (Forys 1993). Faulhaber (2003) estimated that just over half of occupied local populations are reasonably likely to have current or future impacts due to cats. A recent population viability analysis supports this assertion, indicating that without predator control, habitat improvement efforts may result in a negligible increase in the chance for persistence (LaFever 2006). The subspecies is also threatened by habitat degradation from invasive exotic plants, trash dumping, mowing and off-road vehicle use (Forys 1993). If left unchecked, invasive exotic vegetation can render patches unsuitable for rabbits. Management efforts have reduced the threat of invasive exotic vegetation on some government-owned properties, but invasive exotic vegetation remains a problem on privately-owned land parcels and even on some government properties. Currently, trash dumping and off-road vehicle use appear to be less of a problem than in the past (Forys 1993; Faulhaber 2003).

It has been suggested that invasive exotic fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) and elevated raccoon (Procyon lotor) densities also pose a threat to the subspecies, but this has not been confirmed (Forys 1993). Historically, poaching may have contributed to the rabbit's decline, but poaching does not appear to be a major threat at the current time. Feral hogs degraded habitat and may have caused the extirpation of rabbits on Little Pine Key, but hogs were removed from the islands in the 1990s (Wilmers 2003).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
S. p. hefneri:

Policy-based Actions: S. p. hefneri was listed as an endangered species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (1999) has developed and is in the process of implementing a recovery plan for the subspecies. Although feral and domestic cats are known threats to the subspecies, control measures have yet to be implemented, except on United States Navy land.

Research Actions: The distribution of the subspecies was recently updated (Faulhaber 2003) but the current population size has not been estimated. The ecology of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit is fairly well known (Forys and Humphrey 1996), though further research is needed concerning nighttime habitat use and nestling/juvenile mortality (Faulhaber 2003). Further research should also examine the movements, habitat use, and impact of feral and domestic cats throughout the rabbit's range. A population viability analysis model was developed for the subspecies (Forys and Humphrey 1999). Current distribution data need to be added to the model, and additional demography data would improve the model's predictive capability.

Habitat-based actions: Approximately two-thirds of local populations occur entirely on publicly-owned and military land (Faulhaber 2003). Faulhaber (2003) estimated that nearly 500 ha of privately-owned land could be purchased to ensure the protection of existing occupied and potential habitat patches and the area immediately surrounding these patches. Further land acquisition would help protect connectivity between local populations. Efforts to control invasive exotic vegetation are ongoing in rabbit habitat under public and military ownership. Future research and management should involve restoring rabbit habitat and enhancing cover in existing habitat (Faulhaber 2003).

Species-based Actions: A pilot reintroduction program has recently been initiated for the subspecies (Faulhaber 2003). If current efforts prove successful, the reintroduction program could be expanded in the future, possibly in conjunction with in situ captive propagation (Faulhaber 2003). Translocation of wild-caught marsh rabbits had a 100% and a 81% survival rate for the individuals released on Water Key and Little Pine Key, respectively. This study showed that translocation of a small founder group can be successful, important when working with a species, like S. palustris, whose source group could be imperiled by the removal of too many individuals (Faulhaber et al. 2006).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

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.

Negative Impacts: injures humans (carries human disease)

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Marsh rabbits live near marshy, isolated areas away from humans.

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Wikipedia

Marsh rabbit

The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) is a small cottontail rabbit found in marshes and swamps of coastal regions of the Eastern and Southern United States. It is a strong swimmer and found only near regions of water. It is similar in appearance to the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) but is characterized by smaller ears, legs, and tail.

General[edit]

The scientific name Sylvilagus palustris derives from a combination of the Latin words "silva" (forest), lagos (hare), and palustris (of the marsh). The marsh rabbit has commonly been associated with the group of swamp rabbits; however, this name is not a synonym and should not be confused with the larger swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) of Alabama through Texas.[3] They have also often been referred to as marsh hares.

Size[edit]

Marsh rabbits are typically smaller than eastern cottontail rabbits. Adults from the Florida peninsula typically weight around 2.2 - 2.6 lbs (1.0 - 1.2 kg) with a total length up to 17 in (43 cm). Adults from the mainland regions typically grow larger up to 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg) and upwards of 17.5 in (44 cm).[3][4] The hind feet of mainland rabbits are also larger at 3.6 in (9.4 cm) compared with 3.5 in (8.9 cm) of peninsular Florida rabbits.[3]

Appearance[edit]

Marsh rabbits display a blackish brown or dark reddish dorsal surface.[5] The belly is a dingy brownish gray in most but can also have a dull white appearance in mainland rabbits.[3][6] The leading edges of the ears display small black tufts with ochre on the inside.[4][6] rough hair on the dorsal side can be fringed with black hairs. The black portions of the upper parts often change to a dull grayish buff in spring and summer months, returning to a reddish or ochre color in fall, followed by darker black in the winter. Rabbits of peninsular Florida typically display darker and redder colors with a cinnamon-rufous nape, feet, and legs. Juveniles display much darker and duller colors than adults.[6]

One feature that distinguishes marsh rabbits from swamp rabbits and cottontails is that the underside of the tail is almost never white but more brownish gray.[6] Another curious feature observed in specimens from southern Florida is melanism. These individuals exhibit completely black phenotypic coloration that does not change seasonally.[4]

Marsh rabbits have a number of features that distinguish them from cottontails and swamp rabbits. The short ears and legs are much smaller than that of a swamp rabbit. The tail is also much reduced from the bushy tail seen in cottontails.[4]

Subspecies[edit]

Three subspecies of Sylvilagus palustris have been identified:

Range[edit]

The mainland marsh rabbit, S. p. palustris, ranges from the Dismal Swamp, Virginia along the eastern coast to northern sections of Florida and through the Gulf Coast into Mobile Bay, Alabama.[3] It occupies coastal lowland areas, swamps, and rivers and is rarely found more than forty miles from the coast.[1] The Florida marsh rabbit, S. p. paludicola, occupies the peninsular region of Florida from south of the panhandle to the upper keys. There is a region north of Miami along the east coast where this subspecies is not found. The endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit, S. p. hefneri, is only found in the southern Florida Keys.[7]

Habitat[edit]

The marsh rabbit commonly inhabits brackish and freshwater marshes, mainly of cattails and cypress.[8] In southern Florida, they commonly occupy sandy islands and mangrove swamps.[4] They are strictly limited to regions with ready access to water, unlike most rabbits.[7] Often, they will enter tidal marshes, but remain near high ground for protection. Normal hiding spots include dense thickets of magnolia, black-gum, sweet-gum, briers, and cattails.[9]

Diet[edit]

Marsh rabbits are strictly herbivorous. Typically, they feed on leaves and bulbs of marsh plants including cattails, rushes, and grasses.[8] They can also feed on other aquatic or marsh plants such as centella, greenbrier vine, marsh pennywort, water hyacinth, wild potato, and amaryllis.[9]

A habit that marsh rabbits share in common with cottontail rabbits is the practice of reingestion, known as coprophagy.[4] Rabbits will drop both hard and soft fecal pellets. These soft pellets, known as cecal pellets, are quickly eaten to be redigested and remove further nutrients. Since rabbits lack a crop displayed in ruminants such as cows and sheep, this process is an alternative method for extracting more nutrients from partially digested plant material.

Behavior[edit]

Marsh rabbits are most active nocturnally; they spend most of the daylight hours resting in hidden areas.[7] Frequent hiding spots include dense thickets, hollow logs, and stands of cattails and grasses. They have also been known to take advantage of the abandoned burrows of other animals.[10] Marsh rabbits frequently make runway trails in dense vegetation along marsh edges. These trails can be identified easily as the rabbits mark active runways with fecal pellets.[4]

One very distinguishing habit of marsh rabbits is that they walk on all fours, placing each foot down alternately like a cat. Although they can hop like all rabbits, they are more agile in dense vegetation with this walking tendency.[4][7] This smaller gait has been measured at 3.5-6.5 in (8.9-16.5 cm) between steps.[10] The major characteristic of the footprint pattern not seen in other rabbits is widely spread toes.[11]

Marsh rabbits are more aquatic than swamp rabbits as they are not known to inhabit forests.[11] They take to water readily and are excellent swimmers. To aid in swimming, the hind legs have less fur and longer nails than typical cottontails.[4] When not concealed in dense thickets, the rabbits will stay submerged in muddy water with only their eyes and noses exposed and ears laid back flat.[11] When they have been spotted, they will readily take to water and swim quickly to a new hiding spot or floating vegetation.[10] Because marsh rabbits possess very short hind legs, they typically rely on doubling and turning when running to evade predators. This often leads to easy capture by dogs.[6] When flushed out of hiding spots, they may squeal as they escape.[4]

Birds of prey such as the great horned owl and northern harrier or marsh hawk are the major predators of the rabbits. Other predators include alligators, snakes, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.[4][9]

Reproduction[edit]

Breeding in marsh rabbits occurs year round. Typical brood sizes are 2 to 4 young with a gestation period of 30 to 37 days.[4] Adult females produce up to 6 litters per year with an average annual production of 15 to 20 young.[7] Nests are built from rushes, grasses, and leaves. The well-covered nest is lined with hair from the adult rabbits. They are often found in dense thickets or swampy places completely surrounded by water for protection.[11]

Human Interaction[edit]

In regions of the South, marsh rabbits are regularly hunted along with swamp rabbits by burning large patches of dried grass to flush them out.[4] In some states, the marsh rabbit is considered a game animal and is regulated by the Department of Natural Resources. For example, South Carolina establishes a hunting season from November 27 to March 2 with a 5 rabbit per day bag limit.[12] In Virginia, marsh rabbit hunting is managed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.[13]

With their diet of mainly aquatic plants, marsh rabbits are considered minor agricultural pests to most economically viable crops. In southern Florida, however, they are considered major pests of sugar cane fields.[4][7]

Cultural references[edit]

In Georgia, the marsh rabbit is known as Pontoon. In Alabama, swamp rabbits, or cane-cutters, are often mistaken for marsh rabbits.[3][11] In many regions of the Eastern U.S., muskrat meat is often called by the euphemism “marsh rabbit” where it is sold in restaurants. It is often served in a stew or marinated, covered in flour, and fried.[14]

Phylogeny[edit]

Subgenus Tapeti in the genus Sylvilagus, Marsh rabbits (S. palustris), and swamp rabbits (S. aquaticus), share a chromosomal karyotype derived from a common ancestor and have a diploid number of 2n=38.[1] Molecular data analysis from sequencing the mitochondrial 12S ribosomal RNA gene confirms that S. palustris and S. aquaticus are sister taxa under their subgenus.[15] Since this gene evolves very slowly in most organisms, it is very useful in determining genetic origins of closely related species.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Hoffmann, R. S.; Smith, A. T.; Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. (2005). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 211. ISBN 0-8018-8221-4. 
  2. ^ Faulhaber, C. A. & Smith, A. T. (2008). "Sylvilagus palustris". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Elmer, A. H. (2005). Field Book of North American Mammals. Kessinger Publishing ( reprint of G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1928 ). pp. 504–506. OCLC 936637. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Whitaker, J. O.; Hamilton, W. J. (1998). Mammals of the Eastern United States (3rd ed.). Cornell University Press. pp. 178–187. ISBN 0-8014-3475-0. 
  5. ^ Feldhamer, G. A.; Thompson, B. C.; Chapman, J. A. (2003). Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation (2nd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 101–125. ISBN 0-8018-7416-5. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Nelson, E. W. (1909). "The Rabbits of North America" (pdf). North American Fauna (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey) 29: 265–270. doi:10.3996/nafa.29.0001. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g IUCN / SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group; Chapman, J. A.; Flux, J. E. C. (eds) (1990). Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN. p. 106. ISBN 2-8317-0019-1. 
  8. ^ a b Bowers, N.; Bowers, R.; Kaufman, K. (2007). Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America (12th ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 26. ISBN 0-618-95188-1. 
  9. ^ a b c Fergus, C.; Hansen, A. (2003). Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland and Washington, D.C. Stackpole Books. p. 37. ISBN 0-8117-2821-8. 
  10. ^ a b c Murie, O. J.; Elbroch, M. (2005). Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks (3rd ed.). Houghton Mifflin. pp. 40–42. ISBN 0-618-51742-1. 
  11. ^ a b c d e The National Geographic Magazine 33: 391–392. January 1918. 
  12. ^ "Marsh Rabbit". ACE Basin Species Gallery. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. October 11, 2006. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  13. ^ "Species Information: Marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris palustris)". Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  14. ^ Cassidy, F. G.; Hall, J. H. (1996). Dictionary of American Regional English: I-O. Harvard University Press. p. 525. 
  15. ^ Halanych, K. M.; Robinson, T. J. (June 1997). "Phylogenetic Relationships of Cottontails (Sylvilagus, Lagomorpha): Congruence of 12S rDNA and Cytogenetic Data". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 7 (3): 294–302. doi:10.1006/mpev.1996.0403. 
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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: Sylvilagus aquaticus and S. palustris share a derived karyotype (2n=38) (see Hoffmann, in Wilson and Reeder 1993). See Lazell (1984) for the original description of the Lower Florida Keys subspecies hefneri and a redefinition of Florida/Georgia subspecies paludicola.

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