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New England cottontail

Sylvilagus transitionalis

What do they look like?

New England cottontails are medium-sized rabbits that look a lot like eastern cottontails. They weigh between 995 and 1347 g and are 398 to 439 mm long. Their fur is dark brown mixed with a little bit of white and their tails are white underneath. They look different from eastern cottontails because they have black hair on the front side of the ears and between and their ears. Females are larger than males. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range mass
    995 to 1347 g
    35.07 to 47.47 oz
  • Range length
    398 to 439 mm
    15.67 to 17.28 in

Where do they live?

New England cottontails only live in the northeastern United States. Because their habitat has been destroyed in many places, they are now only found on 25% of the land where they used to live. (Litvaitus and Tash, 2004)

What kind of habitat do they need?

New England cottontails live in open forests called woodlands in the northeastern United States. These forests have lots of shrubs, small trees, and herbs, like blueberry bushes and mountain laurels. They prefer to live at higher elevation in the north. They make nests in small hollows in the ground that are about 12 cm deep and 10 cm wide. They line their nests with grasses and fur. New England cottontails almost never travel more than 5 m away from bushes and trees that they can hide underneath. (Kays and Vilson, 2009; Litvaitus and Tash, 2004)

How do they reproduce?

Male New England cottontails group around dominant females when they are ready to breed. They do this in places with lots of food and a good amount of shrub or tree cover. Courtship includes running and jumping, and often one rabbit jumps over the other. Females show off their dominance over males during nesting, giving birth and nursing. This helps them avoid being bothered by other males. (Chapman and Flux, 1990)

Female New England cottontails become pregnant between April and August. They are pregnant for about 28 days and give birth to around 5.2 baby rabbits. They are born naked with closed eyes, so they stay in the nest for 2 to 3 weeks after birth. The mother often mates again before the young leave the nest. New England cottontails give birth 2 to 3 times in the same year. They don't live very long, so many of them have their own babies within the same year they are born. New England cottontails that live farther north are pregnant for less days and give birth to more rabbits each time, which allows them more time to breed when the weather is warmer. (Burton and Burton, 2002; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    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

Male cottontails don't contribute to caring for the young. Mothers nurse their babies in the nest for about 16 days, but don't do much after that. This means that there is a low level of parental investment. (Burton and Burton, 2002)

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

How long do they live?

Like all cottontail rabbits, New England cottontails don't live very long in the wild. They usually don't live more than three years. Only about 15% of the young survive past 1 year. ("Species Profile for New England Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus transitionalis)", 2012; "Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    3 years

How do they behave?

New England cottontails generally live by themselves, and only come together to mate. They are careful and shy, and don't normally travel more than 5 m away from shrub or tree cover. Similar to many rabbits and hares, they groom themselves a lot. (Chapman and Flux, 1990)

Home Range

The size of the area where they live depends on how big their habitat is, so it can be fairly large or fairly small. Home ranges can be anywhere from 0.1 to 7.6 hectare in size, but most of them are about 1 hectare. Males usually have slightly larger ranges than females. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

How do they communicate with each other?

Like other cottontail rabbits, New England cottontails have good hearing and eyesight. They make low, purring, grunting, or growling sounds during breeding or if they are fighting. They make a loud, shrill scream if captured by a predator. They often hit the ground with their back feet, which may be a way to communicate with each other. Communication by smells is probably important as well, like it is in other mammals.

What do they eat?

New England cottontails eat different kinds of plant foods, depending on the season. In the spring and summer, they eat mostly grasses and flowering plants. They eat woody twigs in the fall, and whatever they can find in the winter. Their digestive system is specially designed to allow them to eat soft waste from their own bodies. This helps them get enough nitrogen from their food. (Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

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

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators that eat New England cottontails are weasels, cats, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and birds of prey. If predators come close, New England cottontails sprint away and will run in a zig-zag to confuse the predator. Other times, they freeze and try to blend into their surroundings with their fur. They are more likely to be attacked by a predator if they live in a small forest area that doesn't have much tree or shrub cover. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012; Chapman and Flux, 2008; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

New England cottontails are an important food source for many of the predators that eat them. If there is a lot of food available, there are a lot of New England cottontails because of how quickly they reproduce. This means predators can eat many of them without doing too much harm to the group. Predators change their diet to only New England cottontails if other prey are hard to come by. ("Wildlife in Connecticut Wildlife Factsheet- Cottontail Rabbits", 2012; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

New England cottontails have many types of parasites in and on their bodies. These include ticks, which can spread diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, and tularemia to humans or their pets. (Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

How do they interact with us?

Many people used to hunt New England cottontails as a sport, and for their fur and meat. In the past 20 years, their numbers have decreased and so has hunting them. They are often used for scientific research, because they are small, not agressive, and reproduce quickly. (Chapman and Flux, 1990; Chapman and Flux, 2008; Litvaitis and Jakubas, 2004)

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

Are they endangered?

The number of New England cottontails has been declining since the 1960's. This might be because of habitat loss, competition with eastern cottontails, and mixed breeding with with eastern cottontails. The amount of habitat they can live in has shrunk by 86%. (Barry, et al., 2011; Litvaitus, et al., 2008)

Contributors

Tessa Berenson (author), Yale University, Eric Sargis (editor), Yale University, Rachel Racicot (editor), Yale University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.

References

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 
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Berenson, T. 2012. "Sylvilagus transitionalis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 24, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Sylvilagus_transitionalis/

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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