Scientists Track Cottontails To Save Them

By Sean Corcoran

Nov. 29, 2010

The New England Cottontail is seen in Pawlet, Vt., in June 2010. (RyanVanmeter/Flickr)

The New England Cottontail is seen in Pawlet, Vt., in June 2010. (RyanVanmeter/Flickr)

CAPE COD -- It's hard to believe that a rabbit could have trouble reproducing. But that's the case with the New England cottontail. The rabbit was once a staple for Native Americans and early settlers, but it's now threatened by habitat loss.

Now, from east of the Hudson River and up through New England, efforts are underway to save the rare rabbit species. In an attempt to avoid placing the rabbit on the Endangered Species List, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to increase its numbers by creating new habitat.

A crucial part of the process requires researchers to find relic populations of the rabbits -- like the ones on Cape Cod. There, Mashpee resident Tony Perry is aiding biologists with his skills as a tracker and trapper.

The New England cottontail is the native rabbit that Perry's Wampanoag ancestors hunted. And today, Perry's tracking that same species, using a handheld GPS unit to locate a rabbit wearing a radio collar, just a few hundred yards behind a housing development.

The New England Cottontail population area in 1960 (left) and today (right). (courtesy Dr. John Litvaitis, UNH via U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

"I would say that direction," Perry says as he looks for the rabbit. "Just about 2 lights flashing there. Now that's him, that's the direction he's in."

He's also checking some traps he baited yesterday with pears and apples. "You see another orange flag over there? That's where the trap actually is," Perry says as he moves through the forest brush.

Biologists believe the reason New England cottontails' numbers are down is because the species' natural range includes fewer places like this one near Waquoit Bay. This is the habitat where the New England cottontail feels protected. With its thick and thorny undergrowth, Perry says its the perfect place to leave his trap.

Soon, he's proven right. "There is a bunny in it," Perry says, "We do have a bunny!"

In a corner of the cage, a rabbit small enough to hold in your hand is trying to make itself even smaller. Only its nose is twitching. Spying its ear tag, Perry says he trapped this particular New England cottontail a few weeks earlier, about 300 yards away, where he took a DNA sample.

Standing nearby is Jim Rassman, of the Waquoit Bay Research Reserve, who has been part of the New England Cottontail project for more than two years. But he's only seen about a half-dozen of the rare rabbits up close.

"You can see, it's a very dark rabbit with dark lines along its ears and short, little short ears, so it's body overall is small, it has very short ears, and it has a lot of black on it," Rassman explains. "In comparison, the Eastern cottontail would be a larger rabbit with a lot more white on it."

The Eastern cottontail is a lot more common, sometimes seen bounding across suburban lawns. It looks similar to the New England cottontail, since both have that trademark cottony tail. But the non-native Eastern cottontail was introduced to this region in the early 1900s by hunters who wanted more game. With its large eye diameter, the Eastern cottontail can spot predators more easily and doesn't need as dense an underbrush to survive.

Some officials think the rabbits' "cuteness factor" may help draw efforts to help them stay off the endangered species list. (Ryan VanMeter/Flickr)

Tony Perry opens up the cage holding the New England cottontail. "Yup, there he goes. Rabbit wasn't harmed. We released him. We'll see if we can catch another one tomorrow."

By trapping rabbits and collecting DNA samples, conservationists throughout the cottontail's natural range of New York and New England are sorting out where the rabbit still exists and how it moves around.

The idea is to protect existing habitat and to manage it differently to encourage thick shrubs and undergrowth. Because the cottontail's low numbers aren't driven by predators, Tom Eagle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the work should help boost cottontail populations.

"Our intentions are to go back in and somehow allow more light down to the forest floor, increasing the shrub later and stem density, which makes it more preferred to rabbits," Eagle said. "This can be done mechanically with mowing or cutting of trees … or through prescribed burning, and we'll be trying all different techniques to find out which one works the best."

But convincing people of the need to cut and burn land isn't easy, no matter what the purpose. And it will have to involve both private and public landowners.

But there's one thing working in the New England cottontails' favor, say officials: its cuteness. People may be more willing to take action to help an endangered bunny than a fish or an insect. And all the rabbit really needs to increase its numbers is a safe place to, well, do its thing. New England Cottontail Factsheet

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