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Appalachian cottontail

Sylvilagus obscurus

What do they look like?

Appalachian cottontails have a yellowish brown back that is mixed with black, and they have a reddish brown patch over the back of their neck. Their sides are lighter in color, and their bellies are white. They also have a short fluffy tail, which is darker on the top and white on the bottom. (Bunch, et al., 2006; Kurta, 1995; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

Appalachian cottontails are very similar in appearance to Eastern cottontails, but Appalachian cottontails are slightly smaller in size, have shorter, rounder ears with black along the edges, and have a black spot on their head between their ears. Also, Eastern cottontails usually have a white spot on their forehead, while Appalachian cottontails do not. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    .8 to 1.0 kg
    1.76 to 2.20 lb
  • Range length
    38.6 to 43.0 cm
    15.20 to 16.93 in
  • Average length
    40.0 cm
    15.75 in

Where do they live?

Appalachian cottontails live in forests and brushy areas at high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from the Hudson River in New York to northern Alabama. (Boyce and Barry, 2007; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Appalachian cottontails live in mountainous areas with coniferous forests or areas where dense plants provide. These plants can include mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), blackberry vines (Rubus spp.), greenbriar (Smilax spp.), and cane (Arundinaria gigantea). Appalachian cottontails are also found in clear cuts that underwent disturbance in the last 5 to 25 years. In general, Appalachian cottontails are found at elevations greater than 762 m, (Bunch, et al., 2006; Russell, et al., 1999; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Range elevation
    762 (low) m
    2500.00 (low) ft

How do they reproduce?

Little information is available regarding the mating systems of Appalachian cottontails, although similar species in the same genus g. Sylvilagus are polygynous, meaning one male mates with multiple females. Males in this genus, and likely male Appalachian cottontails, fight amongst themselves, determining a hierarchy that influences mating priority. (Nowak, 1999)

Appalachian cottontails begin breeding in warm weather, usually between late February and early October. Adult female Appalachian cottontails can breed immediately after giving birth, and breed an average of 3 times during the season. They can bare 3 to 4 young with each litter, and appalachian cottontails produce 2 to 8 young annually. Gestation lasts 28 days, and young are weaned after 3 to 4 weeks. Appalachian cottontails are born blind and open their eyes after 6 to 7 days. After 12 to 14 days, they leave the nest, and they are capable of reproducing after 1 to 2 months. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Female adult Appalachian cottontails breed 3 times during the breeding season, and a female cottontail from the first litter will likely breed during that same summer.
  • Breeding season
    Appalachian cottontails breed between February to October.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 8
  • Average number of offspring
    3.5
  • Average gestation period
    28 days
  • Range weaning age
    3 to 4 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    1 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2-3 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2-3 months

Expectant female Appalachian cottontails build a shallow nest composed of leaves, grass, and fur. Young cottontails are born naked, blind, and helpless, and the mother invests the month after birth to weaning and raising the litter. When she leaves for an extended period of time, the mother covers her nest and young with layers of fur, grass, leaves and twigs for camouflage and to keep the young warm. After 6 or 7 days, young Appalachian cottontails open their eyes, and after 12 to 14 days, they leave the nest. Lactation generally lasts for 16 days. After about one month, the young are completely independent from the mother. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

Appalachian cottontails are very short-lived and are expected to live less than one year. (Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 (high) years

How do they behave?

Appalachian cottontails are most active during dawn and dusk. During the day, they tend to rest and groom under a log or in another area sheltered from predators. Cottontails are active year-round. Most species of g. Sylvilagus, and likely Appalachian cottontails, are considered solitary, and males are thought to create dominance hierarchies based on fighting that influence mating priority. (Kurta, 1995; Nowak, 1999; Russell, et al., 1999)

  • Range territory size
    0.015 to 0.133 km^2

Home Range

Male Appalachian cottontails have a larger home range during the breeding season, up to 13.3 ha. Female home ranges remain fairly constant and can be as small as 1.5 ha. (Boyce and Barry, 2007; Nowak, 1999)

How do they communicate with each other?

Like other cottontails, Appalachian cottontails have a heightened sense of smell, hearing, and sight, which help them to attract mates and to quickly recognize and react to predators. Mothers may grunt if a predator is seen near the nest. Appalachian cottontails may also squeal while mating.

What do they eat?

The diet of Appalachian cottontails consists of grasses, forbs, and conifer needles in addition to leaves, twigs, and fruits from the mountainous shrubs in its habitat. In the winter, it is suspected that this species eats the buds and bark of trees and shrubs including red maple, aspen, choke cherry, black cherry, alders, and blueberry bushes. (Bowers, et al., 2007; Kurta, 1995)

Like most Lagomorphs, Appalachian cottontails partakes of coprophagy, the eating of their own feces. This allows for the uptake of essential vitamins that were unabsorbed during the first pass through the digestive tract. (Kurta, 1995)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • fruit
  • Other Foods
  • dung

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Appalachian cottontails make a quick, jumping style of movement which helps them escape potential predators. Often, cottontails dash in a zig-zag pattern to lose predators. They may move slowly, low to the ground with their ears back to avoid detection. Additionally, cottontails like the Appalachian cottontail can remain almost completely still and quiet for up to 15 minutes, even when closely approached, to prevent detection from predators. Known predators include Owls, Hawks, Dogs, Foxes, and Humans. (Kurta, 1995; Nowak, 1999)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Appalachian cottontails serve as prey for a wide variety of animals, including Owls, Hawks, Dogs, Foxes, and Humans. Appalachian cottontails also help disperse seeds of the fruits they eat. (Kurta, 1995; Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Do they cause problems?

Because they eat low growing shrubs and grasses common during early- and mid-successional stages, Appalachian cottontails slow the succession process and thus the regeneration of disturbed areas. Appalachian cottontails can also transmit the bacterial infection, Tularemia, to humans. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

How do they interact with us?

Appalachian cottontails and eastern cottontails are similar in appearance and both are hunted for their meat and fur. (Sharpe and Newman, 1996)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Are they endangered?

Appalachian cottontails are found only in high elevations and are considered to be "near threatened" by the IUCN Red List. Population sizes are decreasing, and it is unknown why this species is limited to high elevations. Conservation status on the US Federal List is under review. (Bunch, et al., 2006)

Contributors

Jeremy Cook (author), Northern Michigan University, John Bruggink (editor), Northern Michigan University, Gail McCormick (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

Bowers, N., R. Bowers, K. Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4U9QA6IXoI0C&oi=fnd&pg=PA4&dq=%22Sylvilagus+obscurus%22&ots=YbMR2sgir1&sig=rGkBNUgTqKN5GVigCQIJYQdksHo#PPP1,M1.

Boyce, K., R. Barry. 2007. Seasonal Home Range and Diurnal Movements of Sylvilagus obscurus (Appalachian Cottontail) at Dolly Sods, West Virginia. Northeastern Naturalist, 14(1): 99-110. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://zc9gn3am3j.scholar.serialssolutions.com/?sid=google&auinit=KA&aulast=Boyce&atitle=Seasonal+Home+Range+and+Diurnal+Movements+of+Sylvilagus+obscurus+(Appalachian+Cottontail)+at+Dolly+Sods,+West+Virginia&id=doi:10.1656/1092-6194(2007)14[99:SHRADM]2.0.CO%3B2.

Bunch, M., R. Davis, S. Miller, R. Harrison. 2006. "Appalachian Cottontail" (On-line). Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources). Accessed January 23, 2011 at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/AppalachianCottontail.pdf.

Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Volume 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed January 23, 2011 at http://books.google.com/books?id=7W-DGRILSBoC&pg=PA1728&dq=Nowak+mammals+of+the+world+1999+sylvilagus&hl=en&ei=tH48Ta_CFsKclgf-_diDBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=sylvilagus&f=false.

Russell, K., C. Moorman, D. Guynn. 1999. Appalachian Cottontails, Sylvilagus obscurus (Lagomorpha: Leporidae), from the South Carolina Mountains with Observations on Habitat Use. The Journal of Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 115(3): 140-144. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://www.uwsp.edu/cnr/faculty/russell/images/cottontails.pdf.

Sharpe, T., J. Newman. 1996. "North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commision" (On-line). Appalachian Cottontail Rabbit Sylvilagus obscurus. Accessed February 11, 2009 at http://www.ncwildlife.org/Wildlife_Species_Con/Profiles/rabbitappcottontail.pdf.

Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Vancouver, B.C. Canada: UBC Press. Accessed March 12, 2009 at http://books.google.com/books?id=qNFgzIPGuSUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Smithsonian+Book+of+North+American+Mammals.

 
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Cook, J. 2011. "Sylvilagus obscurus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 21, 2019 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Sylvilagus_obscurus/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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