Citizens Can Help New England Cottontails in Massachusetts

From Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife:
Back in December 2010, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) appealed to sportsmen, highway department workers, animal control officers, and other interested citizens to collect and provide cottontail carcasses or skulls.

That call for action kicked off a statewide survey of cottontail rabbits to assess the distribution and population of two kinds of cottontails in the Commonwealth, the common and non-native eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and the imperiled native New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis). The New England cottontail has been designated as a Candidate Species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. MassWildlife is making a special appeal to animal control officers in the central and western regions of the state to continue the collection effort and to alert others in their communities to participate in this important citizen science opportunity.

Eastern cottontail

Eastern cottontails (shown here) looks so much like New England cottontails that even trained biologists can find it hard to tell them apart in the wild./USFWS

Since the first appeal, MassWildlife received approximately 500 cottontail specimens, many from sportsmen. From the collected specimens, about 10 percent have been identified as New England cottontails, helping to identify several previously unknown local populations of New England cottontails.

Most of the cottontail carcasses came from the eastern and southeastern parts of the state. MassWildlife needs a sample that is characteristic of the entire Commonwealth and especially needs more cottontail specimens from Worcester County and all points west. MassWildlife will still gratefully accept cottontails from anywhere in the state.

The only way to distinguish between the two kinds of rabbits is by examining various skull features, or submitting tissue samples for DNA analysis. Therefore, carcasses in any condition can be donated to the survey effort.

Road-killed carcasses or cottontail heads should be placed in a plastic bag and frozen until they can be dropped off at a MassWildlife District Office, MassWildlife Hatchery, or MassWildlife's Field Headquarters in Westborough. Be sure to wear gloves when handling carcasses. Please include a note with your contact information, date of collection, and detailed, specific location information such as a street address, intersection, or other key landmark.

The location where the carcass was collected is the single most important piece of data used to assess the cottontails’ distribution, so please make every effort to record as specific a collection location as possible. A marked topographic map, Google map, or GPS coordinates are ideal, but any detailed, specific location information will greatly aid biologists.

The cottontail survey in Massachusetts is part of a regionwide effort, the New England Cottontail Initiative, to conserve New England cottontail populations. The Initiative involves partnerships with state and federal natural resource agencies, conservation organizations and other landowners working together to identify populations of New England cottontails and to create or maintain ample habitat for them.

Contact David Scarpitti, Upland Game Biologist, David.Scarpitti@state.ma.us, (508) 389-6377.