That cute bunny rabbit you see scurrying around meadows and yards in the Northeast is more than likely an invasive species. As we head into this Easter weekend, a look at a pair of dueling species of rabbits.
The native New England Cottontail is awaiting formal placement on the federal endangered species list. What most people are likely seeing in bramble thickets, front yards and fields across the region is the Eastern Cottontail. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office Endangered Species Specialist Tony Tur says that loss of habitat is the primary reason for the New England Cottontail’s population decline.
The native New England Cottontail has lost 86 percent of its range. Some of the habitat loss is due to changes in land use - including conversion of forest land to farms and suburban sprawl. But University of Vermont Howard Professor of Zoology and Natural History Bill Kilpatrick says another factor led the decline in the rabbit’s population.
Kilpatrick explains that since the larger Eastern Cottontail was introduced to the region in the early to middle 20th century, it has spread and become dominant.
While scientists do not have specific population numbers for the New England Cottontail, they have been able to track the decline of its range since the 1960's. Tony Tur says the common species is now the Eastern Cottontail.
The physical differences between the two species are subtle. The Eastern Cottontail is about a pound larger. It also has longer ears and larger eyes. The native New England Cottontail’s coloring tends to be a bit darker.
Tony Tur explains that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with numerous public and private entities across the region to reestablish the New England Cottontail’s population and habitat.
But little is happening in Vermont, where UVM’s Bill Kilpatrick says it’s believed the New England Cottontail has been completely extirpated.
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