By Randy Liles, Area Biologist
Until 1992, the Appalachian cottontail rabbit was thought to be a species of the New England cottontail since they are extremely similar in appearance. Through the use of electron microscopes and studying chromosome numbers, biologists concluded that the two species of rabbits were separate. The Appalachian cottontail is also difficult to distinguish from the Eastern cottontail, with only slight differences in color and size. A black spot between the ears of the Appalachian cottontail helps to differentiate between the two species at the field level. However, scientists distinguish between the two by comparing the bone structure of the skull from above. The Appalachian cottontail has a jagged suture line, while in the Eastern cottontail it is smooth. The suture line is where the nasal bones attach to the skull.
As its name implies, the Appalachian cottontail is found in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains. However, there has been a confirmation of the Appalachian cottontail in Alabama (Choccolocco Mountain, Calhoun County). Little is known as to why they do not populate lower-elevation habitats. The fact that they normally inhabit higher elevations, usually above 2500 feet, may contribute to less hunting pressure on the species.
Appalachian cottontails are found in several different habitat types. They seem to be abundant in clearcuts that are 5-10 years old. Mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets located high in woodland mountains are other favorite habitats. Food items utilized are much the same as for other rabbit species, being mainly grasses, forbs, and legumes. This cottontail’s life span is short, usually less than one year. However, this is countered by a tremendous productivity potential. Females are usually found in estrus immediately after giving birth. Litters usually consist of 5-10 young.
The Appalachian cottontail is not abundant in Alabama, but they are found in the higher elevations of the Appalachian foothills. Hunters will have to look closely to see if they have harvested an Appalachian cottontail. It is not easy to determine, but it is interesting to try.