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Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)

 

Eastern Cottontail

Sylvilagus floridanus

(Order Lagomorpha; Family Leporidae)

Sylvilagus floridanus (photo by Shanay R. Cantu-Chambers)

(Kansas: Reno County. Hutchinson, 38° 04’45”N, 97° 91’91”W. May 17, 2012.)

Diagnosis: The Eastern Cottontail rabbit has speckled fur ranging from brown to gray, and a reddish-brown neck. They have a white underbelly and white fur surrounding the nose. The tail is white and fluffy, about 2 ½-3 inches, and resembles a cotton ball. They are generally more gray in the winter time for camouflage. Juvenile Eastern Cottontails have a white stripe on their forehead, but this disappears with time. They have large brown eyes, and large ears that stand vertically above the head. This species is medium sized, averaging 36-43 cm in length and 0.9-1.8 kg in weight. They have short front legs and long hind legs.

Natural History: This Eastern Cottontail is one of the most widely known species of rabbit in the United States. Though they are very solitary crepuscular/nocturnal mammals, they can sometimes be spotted in the early morning or on dark, cloudy, or foggy days feeding on the lawns in suburban areas.

Because the Eastern Cottontail has many predators, such as large birds, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and snakes, it has a few features to help avoid predation. They sometimes stand on their hind legs to keep an eye out for predators, can jump up to 15 feet in one leap, can reach running speeds of up to 18 mph, and often run in a zigzag pattern in order to break its scent trail.

Because Eastern Cottontails have so many predators, winter time is extremely dangerous for them. When food sources become scarce and farther distances must be travelled in search of nutrition, they become much more vulnerable to hungry predators. Summer is the optimum time for this animal, when green plants and water are readily available.

Reproduction and Life Cycle: Males are often aggressive and competitive with each other during mating season, which ranges from February through September. Gestation lasts about one month, and females may give birth to up to eight litters of kit per year, bearing 1-9 kits per litter. Like many mammalian young, they are born with closed ears and eyes, very little fur, and are on average five inches long. They open their eyes and have full hair coverage ten days after birth. Quickly active, they leave the nest within two weeks, and become self-sufficient and able to live on their own at 4-5 weeks of age. Breeding generally occurs the first spring after birth. In the wild they have a short life span of only two years, but can live up to ten in captivity.

Distribution: This species is found throughout Kansas, and range from Central America through the eastern half of the U.S and across the south central border of Canada.

Distribution of Sylvilagus floridanus. Map by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_cottontail nocturnal

Habitat: This rabbit prefers protective shelter where it can quickly hide, such as dense brush and thicket, while also being within close proximity to open woodlands or pasture. They do not burrow, but instead form a depression in grasses. They generally avoid dense woods.

Diet: Crepuscular to nocturnal animals, they generally feed at night. As herbivores, they mostly feed on vegetation: leaves, grasses, flowers, etc. When green vegetation is unavailable (winter months) they feed on the woody part of plants.

Conservation Status: Stable. Important game species.

Links:

Missouri Department of Conservation. Eastern Cottontail:

http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/eastern-cottontail

National Geographic. Animals. Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus):

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/cottontail-rabbit/

Wikipedia. Eastern Cottontail: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_cottontail

Wildlife North America. Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus):

http://www.wildlifenorthamerica.com/Mammal/Eastern-Cottontail/Sylvilagus/floridanus.html

References:

Sargent, M.S., and Carter, K.S. 1999. Eastern Cottontail Rabbits. Managing Michigan Wildlife:  A Landowners Guide.

Wildlife Habitat Management Institute. 1999. Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet 4.

Zouh, N., and Holleran, C. 2004. Species Description: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit. Landscape Nature Walks.

Submitted By: Shanay R. Cantu-Chambers, July 2012

Wichita State University
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