Common Name: Eastern Cottontail Rabbit – Named for the short, fluffy tail that is white on the bottom that resembles a ball of cotton.
Scientific Name: Sylvilagus floridanus – The genus name is a combination of the Latin silva which means forest and the Greek lagos which means hare, literally a “forest hare.” The initial identification of the cottontail in Florida is the basis for the Latinized species name floridanus meaning “of Florida.”
Potpourri: Rabbits and hares are members of the order Lagomorpha (Greek for “in the form of a hare”). They differ primarily in the degree of maturity of their young at birth. Rabbits are altricial at birth; blind, hairless and virtually helpless. Hares are born with their eyes open and are able to run almost immediately. The terms are used somewhat interchangeably in common parlance, as the jack rabbit is a hare and the Belgian hare is a rabbit. Generally, hares have somewhat longer ears and stronger legs. There are 13 species of cottontail rabbits, 9 of which are found in North America. All are similar in appearance and general mannerisms, differing only marginally in size, range, habitat and coloration.
Rabbits are the apotheosis of prolificacy to the extent that “breeding like rabbits” is one of the more common similes. Female cottontail rabbits can produce as many as six litters in a year with a litter size ranging from two to eight depending on the geographic area and on the extent of available food. One of the reasons for the fecundity of rabbits (and cats and some other mammals) is that they are “induced ovulators.” This means that copulation stimulates the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormones (LH) that act on the ovaries. The end result is that ovulation occurs a few hours after copulation, just as the sperm reach the upper end of the reproductive tract.
The mating process of cottontail rabbits begins with an elaborate ritual after dark according to their crepuscular nature. The male (buck) chases the female (doe) until she turns in confrontation and pummels him with her forepaws. This done, they crouch facing each another until one leaps several feet in the air, a behavior that is repeated by both the male and the female before mating. The gestation period for the female is about thirty days, the mother rabbit providing minimal care to the young, nursing them only once or twice daily. The young are weaned after about three weeks and are encouraged to strike out on their own after about four to five weeks. Since the female cottontail rabbit frequently breeds again within a few hours of parturition, she is nearing the end of gestation for the second litter as the first is leaving the nest.
A pair of healthy rabbits can produce as many as 18 young during a single breeding season. That they have not overpopulated any area into which they are native is due to a number of factors. Predators, diseases, weather and other mortality factors weigh heavily against rabbit longevity. It is estimated that only 15 percent of the young survive past their first year and that only one rabbit in 100 makes it to its third year. Population density is thus maintained at about one rabbit per acre. A female rabbit will normally range over an area no larger than three acres whereas a male will range over eight acres.
North American cottontail rabbits do not dig their own burrows, a behavior characteristic of the European or Old World rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). On the contrary, they scratch out a depression in the ground in an area of dense underbrush for concealment during the day, coming out at night to forage for food. It is these depressions that serve as the nest for the young. During early spring and late fall, when the undergrowth is less dense, a rabbit will build up a shelter of dried grass and brush known as a form. During weather extremes, rabbits will seek out natural cavities or the abandoned burrow of a woodchuck. They are active all year and do not hibernate.
The diet of rabbits varies according to the season. In the summer, they consume mostly tender grasses and small plants if confined to woodlands. However, as their prime habitat is brushy areas next to fields, rural croplands and suburban gardens afford a smorgasbord of alternative vegetables, primarily beans, peas and lettuce (they are not particular to carrots contrary to popular culture). Corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes are generally safe from rabbit predation. During the winter, rabbits eat the bark, twigs and buds of small trees, sometimes girdling them at the height of the snow. As their primary diet is plant cellulose and complex carbohydrates, rabbits must rely on caecal fermentation for digestion (the caecal is the upper portion of the large intestine). After defecating, rabbits reingest fecal pellets to reabsorb the nutrients.
Because of their harmful effects on crops, rabbits are considered pests and population control may become a practical necessity. Many folk remedies lay claim to this effect. A piece of rubber hose placed in a strategic part of the garden is said to scare away rabbits due to its serpentine appearance. A somewhat cabalistic practice calls for placing large glass jars of water in the area around a garden, the rabbits being afraid of their distorted reflections. There are no toxicants or fumigants that are registered as being for use against rabbits; mothballs and dried blood meal are reported to be effective.