Scientific name: Sylvilagus floridanus
Common name: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit
(Information for this Species Page was derived in part from research gathered by Edward Lee for Biology 220W in Spring 2000 at Penn State New Kensington)
The eastern cottontail rabbit is one of the most common mammals of both the natural and the human generated ecosystems of North America. It is especially abundant in habitats that contain edges of open, grassy fields and thorny or shrubby cover. Both early stage successional ecosystems and many managed suburban landscapes are conducive to both the habitat and food needs of the cottontail. The grass monocultures of some suburban communities, though, do not in themselves provide sufficient food varieties for cottontail nutrition. Further, the simplification of rural habitats (via the large scale consolidation of agricultural fields, the removal of fence rows and hedgerows, the aging and deterioration of shelter belts, and the overgrazing of pastures and range lands) has reduced the extent of some of the habitats that have in the past sustained the eastern cottontail.
Cottontails are 15 to 18 inches long and weigh between two and three pounds. They can range in color from a light brown to a darker gray. Habitat characteristics and color tones are important in determining the dominant color type of rabbits found in
a particular locale. Cottontails have relatively long, erectly held ears, large back feet and their signature, white, fluffy, "cotton" tail.
Rabbit or Hare?
The term "rabbit" and the term "hare" are often used as synonyms but are not at all interchangeable. The most obvious difference between these two types of small, grazers is the shape of their ears: hares have much longer ears than rabbits and the ears of hares tend to have black colored tips. There are also significant differences in the two groups' burrowing habits (only rabbits make underground burrows) and in the characteristics of their young (rabbits have
naked newborns, hares have furred newborns).
Cottontail rabbits eat a great variety of plant materials. In the summer green plants are favored. About half of the food consumed are grasses (including bluegrass and wild rye) but wild strawberries, clover, plantain, garden vegetables and a wide array of other plants are also readily
eaten as they become seasonally available. In the winter, the cottontail (which does not hibernate) forages out over the surface of the snow cover and consumes dominantly woody plant parts including the twigs, bark, and buds of oak, dogwood, sumac, maple and birch. Feeding patterns vary with season, but typically peak in the two to three hours after dawn and the hour after sunset. Cottontails also consume their own fecal pellets, a behavior that reflects both the recalcitrance of their food materials and the relative inefficiency of the rabbits' digestive systems
The crepuscular ("dusk and dawn") pattern of foraging activity is augmented in the summer by a nocturnal time expansion. During the day, the cottontail stays safely hidden from predators in thickets, brush piles or in hollow logs. Cottontails confronted with danger either freeze in place to take advantage of their cryptic coloration or dart away in a rapid,
zigzag manner. Running speeds of the eastern cottontail can reach eighteen miles per hour.
Most cottontails are solitary animals and can be within their home ranges aggressively intolerant of other members of their species. A female's home range varies between one to fifteen acres in size, while a male's range may be as large as one hundred acres. Prior to mating, the male and female cottontails display courtship behaviors that are collectively called "cavorting". The patterns observed in cavorting can include a great deal of running, racing, hopping, and even actual fighting. Fragments of hide and hair are sometimes scattered over several acres as a result of this pre-mating behavior. It is thought that the selective advantage of this behavior is to weed out sick, less agile or less aggressive individuals from the reproductive pool. Mating can occur at any time during the warmer months of the year. Cavorting typically occurs at night.
Life Span and Reproduction
The average life span of an eastern cottontail in the wild is usually less than three years. In captivity, though, a cottontail rabbit can live up to eight years. Cottontails can reproduce by one year of age, and a reproductively mature doe can have up to five litters of three to eight young in a single season! This extremely high potential rate of reproduction can cause rabbit populations to greatly increase in numbers over very short periods of time. A wild population of eastern cottontails typically contains a large number of individuals aged one year or less and is thus almost always on the verge of a population explosion. Females have their litters in grass-lined, surface or subterranean nest cavities. The young are born after a thirty day gestation period and are dependent upon the doe for food for approximately two weeks. At two weeks the small rabbits forage and fend for themselves.
Many types of predators utilize cottontail rabbits as a food source. Foxes, hawks and owls are the most significant "natural" predators, while feral dogs and human hunters are the most significant "human-generated" predatory forces. Continuous predation pressure is essential to keep the populations of cottontails from growing too large for an ecosystem's resources.