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Cataloguing cottontails
New citizen science website for tracking rabbits

11/02/17
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 There are two kinds of cottontail rabbits in the state. While the state is focusing its conservation efforts on the endangered New England cottontail, it knows very little about the more plentiful transplant in the southern part of the state, the Eastern cottontail. But a new website for tracking cottontails has been set up to remedy that.

 
Cottontail confusion
Heidi Holman, a wildlife diversity biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game, said residents who spot rabbits often confuse the two kinds of cottontails. They are very similar in appearance. In fact, the presence of the Eastern cottontail in the state is due in part to this confusion. 
Holman said that in the early 1900s they were brought into the state from the Midwest for breeding game at game farms, under the assumption they were the same species as those native to the state.
But there are some key differences. Some distinguishing features can be seen in photographs, which is why Holman encourages citizen scientists to take snapshots of the rabbits they see and upload them to the new tracking website, nhrabbitreports.org.
Sometimes, Eastern cottontails can be identified by a white spot on their heads, something New England Cottontails never have, though juvenile snowshoe hares can have them too. Snowshoe hares, however, have bigger feet, hence the name. 
Some of the more important differences have to do with behavior rather than appearance, Holman said.
While New England cottontails are struggling to survive in a state where their habitats have disappeared and become increasingly fragmented by human development, Eastern cottontails are better adapted to other habitat types.
“It evolved in a landscape that was more open so it’s more likely to be out in the grass, it happens to nest in people’s yards and it can move more readily across the landscape,” Holman said. “That’s why people see more of them.”
New England cottontails, conversely, prefer habitats like shrubby old fields, some shrubby wetlands and young forests that grow after a timber harvest. And they don’t venture out. 
Because habitats are so few and populations are small, biologists like Holman know a lot more about New England cottontails than their Midwestern cousins.
The website provides useful information about the different rabbits, but ultimately, Holman hopes to learn more about the distribution of Eastern cottontails.
 
Possible risks
Eastern cottontails do not interbreed with New England cottontails. Biologists know this from regularly testing the DNA in rabbit droppings, according to Holman. And since Eastern cottontails are better equipped to spread and establish themselves throughout the state, there’s a risk that they might overtake New England cottontail habitats in the future. While neither species is particularly aggressive, if they compete over scarce food and real estate, the Eastern cottontail is more likely to succeed.
That’s one of the reasons Holman partnered with the UNH Cooperative Extension to create the tracking website.
“Eventually, all the data points will give us a map of southern New Hampshire and it will start to show me where there are large numbers of Eastern cottontails,” Holman said.
 
Conservation
Efforts to help the New England cottontails get and keep a foothold in New Hampshire are still in the early days, but they appear to be gaining momentum. 
In 2013, cottontails were released in the newly established Bellamy Wildlife Management Area in the Seacoast. And new habitats are being set up in Londonderry, where there are already existing clusters of New England cottontails, not far from the airport.
Holman said they set up two 20-acre habitats in the last few years and are in the process of setting up another 10 to 15 acres over the next year.
A big part of the efforts to get the New England cottontail off the state endangered species list is active breeding programs. Each year, the state gets about 50 rabbits from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, about 50 rabbits from the Queens Zoo in New York City and about 50 from Patience Island in Rhode Island. 
On top of that, the state has begun breeding its own in an outdoor facility established earlier this summer at the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington. They placed six pairs of adult males and females in there and already pulled about eight young to release into the wild. 
“Our goal is to release hundreds every year,” Holman said.  
You can help the state in its efforts to track New Hampshire’s wild rabbit population: If you see a rabbit in the wild, snap a picture and upload it to nhrabbitreports.org. 





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