All About Rabbits
A True, Original Native
The New England cottontail has lived in its native region for many thousands of years. A signature species of young forest, it shares that habitat with many other wild animals, including – to name but a few – the bobcat, white-tailed deer, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden-winged warbler, and wood turtle.
Today this rabbit is in trouble, its population dwindling as areas of young forest and shrubland become middle-aged and older woodland, and as humans develop the landscape and suppress natural processes, such as wildfires and beaver activity, that once created big expanses of regrowing forest. In 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservationists are working hard to keep the New England cottontail from going extinct. Research into the rabbit’s population, range, habitat, genetics, and behavior is building a solid foundation of knowledge to support the species’ restoration.
Where They Live, Then and Now
New England cottontails once lived from southeastern New York north into Vermont and southern Maine. Since the 1960s, that range has shrunk by an estimated 86 percent. Today the species still inhabits parts of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Biologists have identified five subpopulations now isolated from one another by urban and suburban development.
The larger snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) inhabits northern New England and New York. In winter, the snowshoe hare's fur turns white so that it blends into the snow-covered landscape. (The fur of cottontail rabbits stays brown year-round.)
The Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) was introduced to New England in the early twentieth century. It ranges throughout the Northeast and west to the Rocky Mountains. Today there are more Eastern cottontails in New England than the native rabbit species. Eastern and New England cottontails do not interbreed or hybridize in the wild.
Names and Appearance
Also called the brush rabbit, woods rabbit, or coney, the New England cottontail is 15 to 17 inches long and weighs around 2 pounds – 20 percent smaller than the Eastern cottontail.
The New England cottontail has a grayish brown pelt flecked with black, and a white tail. The New England cottontail looks much like the Eastern cottontail. However, most New England cottontails have a small black spot on the forehead, whereas about half of all Eastern cottontails have a white spot in the same place. The New England cottontail's ears are slightly shorter than those of the Eastern cottontail and have a line of black fur along the outer edge.
Even biologists can find it hard to tell a New England from an Eastern cottontail. To confirm an identification, a scientist may examine a specimen’s skull (skull shape and other features differ between the species) or analyze DNA extracted from body tissues or droppings. DNA analysis of fecal pellets can be used to determine the presence, in a given area, of New England cottontails.