Photo Credit: Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sylvilagus aquaticus
OTHER NAMES: Cane cutter
STATUS: Poorly known. Distributed statewide, except for southern tier of counties along Florida Panhandle. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is the largest of the rabbits that occur in the southeastern United States. It is two times the size of the cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and darker in color with a cinnamon colored ring around the eye.
DISTRIBUTION: Swamp rabbits are found in riparian zones, swamps and marshes in the southeastern United States and occur throughout Alabama. Populations are decreasing across the South due to a loss of habitat, such as bottomland and riparian hardwoods.
HABITAT: Swamp rabbits can adapt to different habitat types, but prefer woodlands, brush, grasslands, and cultivated lands near or adjacent to a water source. Cover is a major requirement for their survival. Small food patches or linear strips located near cover are effectively utilized by swamp rabbits. Brushy fence rows, honeysuckle thickets, blackberry patches and brush or slash piles are excellent sources of cover.
FEEDING HABITS: Swamp rabbits feed mainly at night or in low light conditions. They prefer aquatic plants and grasses and will feed in water 3 to 4 feet deep. Other preferred foods include: sedges, sprouts, leaves, fruits, buds and bark. They also eat legumes and waste grain such as corn and soybeans left in agricultural fields.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Swamp rabbits build a nest in a small depression on the ground using twigs and leaves and lining the inside with fur. They produce two to three litters per year with two to five young per litter, but can produce up to eight litters. The gestation period is 36 to 38 days. Young stay in the nest for 14 days and are then strong enough to fend for themselves. Nest success is very low mainly because of nest predators. The potential lifespan of a swamp rabbit is eight to 10 years but most only live four to six months.
Predators, parasites and diseases are the major limiting factors of swamp rabbits. They are preyed upon by numerous species: foxes, bobcats, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, broad winged hawks, barred owls, great-horned owls, coyotes, alligators, snakes, dogs, feral house cats, skunks, crows and raccoons. Swamp rabbits readily take to water to flee predators. Swamp rabbits are infected by numerous parasites, the most prevalent being bot fly larvae commonly referred to as “wolves.” They also contract fibromas which are warty growths spread by ticks, mosquitos, and other biting insects. Tularemia – the major disease contracted by the swamp rabbit – can spread quickly and cause significant mortality. This disease is caused by a bacterium, Pasteurella tularaensis, which also infects wild birds and mammals.
Dickson, J. G. 2001. Wildlife of Southern Forests: Habitat and Management. Hancock House Publishers, Blaine, WA.
Yarrow, G. K., and D. T. Yarrow. 1999. Managing Wildlife. Sweetwater Press, Birmingham, AL.
Author: Adam Pritchett, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries