Even though rabbits have a solid reputation for being prolific breeders, New England cottontails have been slowly disappearing from the landscape for decades. Now they’re in danger of disappearing entirely from some of the last places they can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.
They’re currently listed as endangered species in both states, while they’re waiting as candidates for needed protection under the Endangered Species Act.
In a study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, scientists with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) have found that over the last decade their populations have become even more isolated while their range has contracted by 50 percent.
The greatest cause for their decline has been habitat loss and fragmentation, which has been caused by maturing forests, development or naturally unsuitable habitat. These rabbits are known as habitat specialists, who rely on thicketed habitats made of shrubs and small trees that offer cover and protection from predators. Researchers believe restoring these types of habitats is the key to keeping these rare rabbits from going extinct.
“The New England cottontail is a species of great conservation concern in the Northeast. This is our only native rabbit and is an integral component of the native New England wildlife. Maintaining biodiversity gives resilience to our landscape and ecosystems,” said NHAES researcher Adrienne Kovach, research associate professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire.
To find out where these rabbits are, where they’re traveling to and how their genes are being spread, researchers studied DNA samples that were collected from the droppings of 157 rabbits in southern Maine and along the coast of New Hampshire between 2007 and 2009.
While they discovered their habitat is shrinking, and their populations are separated by distance and blocked by major highways and rivers, they also found that certain man-made landscapes, including the edges of railroads and roads, along with powerline rights-of-way, have provided a preferred habitat for these rabbits and have created important corridors for them to travel along. These corridors are critical for their dispersal, which helps keep them from competing for resources and suffering from the effects of inbreeding. They also concluded that underpasses and culverts, could be effective in helping these rabbits move across major highways.
The researchers now hope that getting wildlife managers and conservation efforts focused on protecting and restoring these landscapes will help New England cottontails recover, in addition to helping dozens of other species from birds and small mammals to reptiles who also rely on thicketed habitats.
“If we can restore more of this habitat in our landscape and work on creating a landscape that has a mosaic of different habitats, including mature forests and young forests, we know that it is going to help a lot of species,” said Kovach.
For more info about efforts to help New England cottontails, visit NewEnglandCottontail.org.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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