New England cottontail
|New England Cottontail|
|New England Cottontail range|
The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is a species of cottontail rabbit represented by fragmented populations in areas of New England, specifically from southern Maine to southern New York. This species bears a close resemblance to the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), which has been introduced in much of the New England Cottontail home range. The eastern cottontail is now more common in it.
New England cottontails are virtually identical to eastern cottontails. The only way to tell them apart unequivocally is to view skull characteristics or by DNA analysis. Generally, New England cottontails have slightly shorter ears and smaller bodies. New England cottontails have a black spot between their ears 90% of the time (compared to 40% in eastern). They always lack a white spot on the forehead (eastern has the white spot 43% of the time), and they have a black line on the front edge of the ear 95% of the time (easterns 40%).
Populations have declined by 86% over the past 50 years. Because of this decrease in this species' numbers and habitat, the New England cottontail is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Cottontail hunting has been restricted in some areas where the eastern and New England cottontail species coexist in order to protect the remaining New England cottontail population.
Rabbits require habitat patches of at least 12 acres to maintain a stable population. In New Hampshire, the number of suitable patches dropped from 20 to 8 in the early 2000s. The ideal habitat is 25 acres of continuous early successional habitat within a larger landscape that provides shrub wetlands and dense thickets. Federal funding has been used for habitat restoration work on state lands, including the planting of shrubs and other growth critical to the rabbit's habitat. Funding has also been made available to private landowners who are willing to create thicket-type brush habitat which doesn't have much economic value.
The New England cottontail is mainly found in New England, but also in New York. Before 1960, this species was found throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts (including Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket), Rhode Island, southern Vermont, southern New Hampshire, southern Maine, and all of New York east of the Hudson river north of New York City. A small population also existed in southern Quebec. In the 1980s, populations decreased because of maturation of second-growth forests and fragmentation of habitat. Subsequently, these rabbits were extirpated from Vermont and Quebec. New Hampshire's and Maine's suitable habitat dropped dramatically. In Massachusetts, the New England cottontail was already found only in three counties (originally all 14 counties). It was still widespread but extremely rare in Connecticut and Rhode Island. New England cottontails continue decreasing, making it more difficult to find these elusive rabbits, compounded by the difficulty of distinguishing them from Eastern cottontails. To this day, New England cottontails are found mainly in coastal southeastern Maine, southeastern New Hampshire, the Merricack valley of New Hampshire, Cape Cod Massachusetts, southwestern Massachusetts, southeastern New York, parts of western and eastern Connecticut, and parts of Rhode Island. Smaller populations exist in southern New Hampshire, Nantucket island, a part of Massachusetts near the Quabbin Reservoir, and some Boston Harbor Islands.
The New England cottontail is listed as "vulnerable" because of its decreasing population and reduction in suitable habitat. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is surveying suitable habitat for this species. Due to its rarity, elusiveness, and the fact that it is nearly identical to the Eastern cottontail, DNA analysis of fecal pellets one of the best ways to identify New England cottontail populations. New England cottontails are listed as "endangered" in New Hampshire and Maine, "Extirpated" in Vermont and Quebec, "species of special concern" in New York and Connecticut, and a "species of special interest" in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Surveys are being conducted to identify areas for creating suitable habitat and to identify areas with suitable habitat that may contain remnant populations. Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Connecticut are primary areas that may hold populations of the species. The USFWS has discovered populations in Nantucket and Eastern Connecticut. Additional surveys are being done to find more remnant populations in New England and New York.
- Hoffman, R. S.; Smith, A. T. (2005). "Order Lagomorpha". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
- Barry, R., Lazell, J. & Litvaitis, J. (2008). "Sylvilagus transitionalis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 27 January 2010.
- Marianne K. Litvaitis; John A. Litvaitis (1996). "Using Mitochondrial DNA to Inventory the Distribution of Remnant Populations of New England Cottontails". Wildlife Society Bulletin 24 (4): 725–730. JSTOR 3783166.
- Keefe, Jennifer (April 24, 2011). "Cottontail gets help with habitat restoration". Foster's Daily Democrat. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
- Mass, Wildlife. "Cottontails in Massachusetts". Retrieved 4 July 2012.
- Hunting Small game in New Hampshire – N.H. Fish and Game
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