New England Cottontail
The New England cottontail
is amedium-to-large-sized cottontail rabbitthat may reach 2.2 pounds in weight.Sometimes called the gray rabbit,brush rabbit, wood hare or cooney, it isthe only rabbit that is native to areaseast o the Hudson River in New York.From the late 1800s until the 1960s,large numbers o eastern cottontail
were introduced to areas within the range o the New Englandcottontail. Today, with the exception o Maine, the eastern cottontail occupiesmost o the New England cottontail’srange and is much more numerous; inmany areas, the eastern cottontail hascompletely replaced the New Englandcottontail. External characteristicsthat distinguish the two species aresubtle, making it dicult to tell themapart. Generally, the New Englandcottontail can be distinguished by itsshorter ear length, slightly smallerbody size, absence o a white spoton the orehead, and presence o ablack line on the anterior edge o the ears and a black spot betweenthe ears. The two species are easy todistinguish, however, by examiningskull morphology or genetic samples. Although similar in appearance, thereis no evidence that the two species arehybridizing.
Historically, the New Englandcottontail occurred in seven statesand ranged rom southeastern New York east o the Hudson River,north through the Champlain Valley,southern Vermont, the southern hal o New Hampshire and southern Maine,and south throughout Massachusetts,Connecticut and Rhode Island.Today, the range o the New Englandcottontail has contracted by 75 percentor more since 1960; the species is nolonger ound in Vermont. Furthermore,densities o New England cottontail inremaining parts o its range are low.
U.S. Fish & Wildlie Service
New England cottontail are consideredhabitat specialists, insoar as they aredependent upon early-successionalhabitats, requently described asthickets. These habitats can beound in association with abandonedagricultural lands, wetlands, clearcuts o woodlands, coastal shrublands,scrub oak barrens, areas with densegreenbrier (Smilax spp.), utilityrights-o-way, or other areas wheredisturbance has stimulated the growtho shrubs and other early-successionalplants. Demonstrating a close anityto microhabitats containing 20,234stem cover units/acre, New Englandcottontail are reluctant to venture romthe cover these dense stands provide.Researchers have demonstrated that when ood was not available withinthe cover o thickets, New Englandcottontail were reluctant to oragein the open, and subsequently losta greater proportion o body massand succumbed to higher rates o predation than did eastern cottontailin the same enclosure. Thicket habitatsand corresponding New Englandcottontail populations decline rapidly asunderstory vegetation thins during theprocesses o orest maturation.
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Along with the structural nature o the vegetation within a patch o habitat, thesize o the patch must be considered when assessing its value or supportingNew England cottontail. In smallerhabitats, rabbits tend to deplete theirood resources during the winter; asa result, rabbits on smaller patches(about 5 acres or less) tend to be inpoorer condition. These rabbits alsoexperience higher rates o predationthan do rabbits on larger patches (12acres or larger) because they must riskbeing exposed in areas with less coveri they are to nd ample ood resources.
The primary threat to the New England cottontail is loss o habitatthrough succession. During the processo orest maturation, stem densitydeclines. Eventually the stand thinsto such an extent that the habitat isno longer suitable or New Englandcottontail. Fragmentation serves tourther degrade habitat on a largerscale. Isolation o occupied patchesby surrounding areas o unsuitablehabitat, coupled with high predationrates, are causing local extirpation o New England cottontail rom smallpatches.Today, white-tailed deer occur in highdensities unprecedented throughoutNew England. These deer not onlyconsume many o the same oods thatrabbits eat, but their presence canalso alter the species composition andstructure o vegetation communities.In addition, many o the patches whereNew England cottontail are oundare dominated by non-native, invasive