Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)

Also known as: eastern cottontail rabbit
  
Spanish: Conejo Castellano
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChrodata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyLeporidae
GenusSylvilagus (1)
SizeTotal length: 35.5 - 48.5 cm (2)
Tail length: 2.5 - 7.6 cm (3) (4)
Ear length: 4.9 - 7.6 cm (2) (4)
Weight0.8 - 2 kg (5) (6)
Top facts

The eastern cottontail is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A familiar rabbit species across much of eastern North America (2), the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) has the long ears, large hind legs and feet, and short, fluffy tail which are characteristic of all rabbits and hares. The eastern cottontail’s front legs are shorter than its hind legs, and the soles of its feet are covered in fur (4).

The eastern cottontail’s soft, dense fur varies from brown to reddish-brown or grey on the upperparts of the body (2) (3) (5) (6), with a sprinkling of black (4) (5). There is usually a reddish-brown patch on the back of the neck (2) (4) (5) (6), but this may be yellowish-brown to black in individuals from South America (3) (5). The underside of the eastern cottontail’s body is white, as is the underside of its tail (2) (3) (5). The tail is usually held up against the animal’s back, meaning that this white surface is clearly visible (4) (6).

The legs and feet of the eastern cottontail are usually reddish-brown to buffy-brown (2) (6). This species’ ears are slightly darker than its back and may be bordered with black, and there is often a white spot on the animal’s forehead (2) (4) (6) and a light ring around each eye (4). Unlike some other rabbit and hare species, the eastern cottontail does not develop a white coat in winter (6).

The male and female eastern cottontail are similar in appearance (4), but the female averages slightly larger than the male (3) (4) (6). Juveniles are generally paler and buffier in colour than the adults (4) (5).

Up to 35 subspecies of eastern cottontail have been described (3), which vary in their size and colouration (2). However, the taxonomy of these different subspecies may need to be reviewed (1) (2).

The eastern cottontail is the most widely distributed Sylvilagus species (1) (2) (3), ranging from southern Canada, through much of the eastern and central United States and Central America, and into parts of northern South America (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).

Although absent from Canada at the time of European settlement, the eastern cottontail has since colonised the region as clearance for agriculture and the planting of hedgerows made the habitat there more favourable (5) (6). In South America, this species is known only from Colombia and Venezuela (1) (5).

Outside of its natural range, the eastern cottontail has been widely introduced to parts of western North America and Europe, including Italy, France, Spain and Germany (1) (3) (5) (6).

An adaptable and successful species, the eastern cottontail is able to survive in a wide variety of different habitats, including forests, prairies, swamps, deserts, farmland, pasture, hedgerows, glades and even urban areas (1) (2) (3) (5) (6). However, it often prefers open areas with nearby cover, such as mixed farmland and hedgerow, or open brushy or forest-border habitats (4) (6).

The eastern cottontail feeds on a wide range of plant species. In the summer months, it mainly takes green vegetation such as grasses, clover and various weeds, but in the winter when these are scarce it will also eat woody material such as the bark, stems and buds of trees and shrubs. Like other rabbits and hares, the eastern cottontail produces two types of droppings. The first type, which is soft and green, is re-ingested so that the rabbit can digest it more thoroughly. The second type is small and hard and is not eaten, having had all the nutrients extracted from it (2) (3) (4) (6).

Most foraging activity takes place at dawn and dusk, with the eastern cottontail resting under cover during the day (2) (4). While resting, this species shelters in a ‘form’, which usually consists of a small depression in the soil beneath a brush pile, thicket or dense clump of grass, where the rabbit can remain hidden (2) (3) (4) (6). The eastern cottontail may also shelter in the underground burrows of other animals during harsh winter weather (2) (4) (6).

The eastern cottontail is predated by many different animals, including foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls, cats, dogs, weasels and snakes (2) (3) (4) (6). This species usually relies on its ability to remain hidden to avoid predators, but to escape danger it will also suddenly dash away, its white tail flashing (2) (6).

Eastern cottontails within a given area develop a dominance hierarchy, using aggressive and submissive behaviours to avoid physical fights. Dominant males mate with most of the females (2) (3) (4) (6). The breeding season of the eastern cottontail varies depending on the location and the elevation, but generally occurs between January and September (2) (3) (4).

The female eastern cottontail constructs a nest in which to give birth, digging out a small, slanting hole and lining it with grass and leaves, as well as with soft fur plucked from her belly (2) (3) (4) (6). The eastern cottontail typically gives birth to up to 7 young at a time (2) (3) (5) after a gestation period of 25 to 35 days (2) (3). The young eastern cottontails have only a fine layer of fur at birth, and their eyes and ears are closed (2) (3) (4) (6). While the young rabbits are in the nest, the female eastern cottontail only visits briefly to nurse them, carefully covering the nest up to hide them when she leaves (2) (4) (6). The young usually open their eyes at about four to five days old, and are able to leave the nest after about two weeks, although they may occasionally return to it over the next few days (2) (3) (4).

A prolific breeder, the eastern cottontail can become pregnant again soon after giving birth, and each female is capable of raising up to seven or even eight litters each year (2) (4) (5) (6). This species matures quickly and some individuals are capable of breeding in the same year as their birth (2) (3) (4) (6). Despite this rapid reproductive rate, few eastern cottontails survive long enough to breed, and most individuals do not live beyond about two years old (2) (3) (5).

The eastern cottontail is a widespread, abundant and adaptable species which is not currently considered to be threatened. An effective coloniser, it is expanding its range in many of the areas to which it has been introduced, often causing a problem for native rabbit species (1).

Some local populations of the eastern cottontail, however, may be negatively affected by changes in land use and the removal of hedges and fencerows (1) (4), as well as by the increasing use of herbicides to kill many of the weeds on which this rabbit feeds (4). Many eastern cottontail nests are destroyed by mowing, ploughing and burning, and adults are often killed on roads (4). The eastern cottontail is also a major game animal, and millions of individuals are shot each year for sport and food (2) (3) (4).

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for this abundant and successful mammal. Provided that it has suitable cover, the eastern cottontail is able to breed rapidly and populate available habitat. In some cases, measures are needed to prevent this species from causing damage to orchards, ornamental trees and gardens, but the eastern cottontail plays a vital role in the food chain as prey for a variety of other animals, and as such it can reduce predation on other game species and on livestock (4).

The eastern cottontail has been intensively studied (3), but would still benefit from further research into its distribution, population size and taxonomy (1).

Find out more about the eastern cottontail:

Find out more about rabbit conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Whitaker Jr, J.O. and Hamilton Jr, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
  3. Chapman, J.A., Hockman, J.G. and Ojeda, M.M. (1980) Sylvilagus floridanus. Mammalian Species, 136: 1-8. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-136-01-0001.pdf
  4. Schwartz, C.W. and Schwartz, E.R. (2001) The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Second Revised Edition. University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri.
  5. Long, J.L. (2003) Introduced Mammals of the World: Their History, Distribution and Influence. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  6. Naughton, D. (2012) The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.