Photo Credit: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Karen Reay
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sylvilagus obscurus (Chapman et al.)
OTHER NAMES: Allegheny Cottontail, New England Cottontail, Wood Rabbit, and Mountain Cottontail.
STATUS: Poorly known. records only from northern third of Alabama. HIGH CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: A medium-sized (total length 385-430 mm [15.1-16.9 in.]; weight 0.7-1.0 kg [1.5-2.2 lb.]) rabbit that closely resembles the ubiquitous eastern cottontail (Choate et al. 1994). Distinguishing among the two cottontails based on external characters alone is challenging. Generally, the Appalachian cottontail differs in its slightly smaller size; short, rounded ears that are black-edged and heavily furred inside; black patch between the ears; absence of a white blaze or spot on the forehead; and pinkish buff coat that is overlain with a black wash. The definitive method of identification relies upon specific skull characteristics, those typical of the Appalachian cottontail being: jagged and irregular sutures between the frontal and nasal bones; anterior portion of the supraorbital process indistinct or, at most, with a slight notch or indentation; postorbital processes thin and tapering to a point that barely, if at all, joins the skull posteriorly; two outer sides of the incisive foramen extending parallel for about two-thirds the length of the opening and then abruptly turn medially or towards one another creating two distinct shoulders, which then continue anteriorly ending just behind the incisors (Bangs 1894, Chapman 1975, Chapman et al. 1992, Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). Was originally described as the New England Cottontail (Bangs 1894) and this classification remained until two chromosomal races were discovered; a northern one with 52 diploid chromosomes and a southern race with 46 (Reudas et al. 1989). Based upon these differing karyotypes coupled with multivariate analyses of 19 cranial and dental measurements, two sibling species were recognized (Chapman et al. 1992). Populations east and north of the Hudson River drainage to southern Maine retained the designation of New England cottontail and all populations south and west of the Hudson were renamed the Appalachian cottontail. This separation has since been challenged based on mitochondrial DNA (Litvaitis et al. 1997), and a debate now persists as to the correct taxonomic classification of this cottontail complex. Until this issue is resolved, the species occurring in Alabama is presently referred to as the Appalachian cottontail.
DISTRIBUTION: Discontinuous, but extending west of the Hudson River southward through the Appalachian Mountains and associated plateau and hill country to northern Alabama and Georgia (Chapman et al. 1992, Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). Once thought to be restricted to the higher elevations of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains with occurrences primarily above 600-900 meters (2,000-3,000 feet) (Llewellyn and Handley 1945). However, recent information throughout much of the species’ distribution indicates it is found at elevations as low as 213 meters (700 feet). In Alabama, Howell (1921) reported the species from “Erin and Dean at the foot of the Talladega Mountains in Clay County, and Ardell, in the rough hill country along the Sipsey Fork, Cullman County.” Those early collections were made in 1912 and 1914, respectively. The only other historical account comes from a 1979 collection obtained in the Bankhead National Forest, south-central Lawrence County (Chapman et al. 1992). Recent records have confirmed the presence of the species in the Bankhead National Forest of south-central Lawrence County and the Black Pond area of Winston County (Hart 2001).
HABITAT: Closely associated with a dense cover of conifers and ericaceous vegetation such as mountain laurel, rhododendron, and blueberry. The species also has been found in hardwood forests; old fields that were overgrown with Virginia pine, maple, oak, black cherry, locust, and bramble and brush; five- to 10-year-old clearcuts; and reclaimed coal-mining lands (Chapman and Paradiso 1972, Chapman and Stauffer 1981, Hart 2001). General habitat of the 1912 and 1914 collections from Alabama were described as “chiefly mountain slopes and rough foothill country” (Howell 1921). In Alabama, records from a survey conducted during the winter and spring of 2001 in the Bankhead National Forest indicate that the species occurs in stands of relatively young hardwood saplings that are often interspersed with loblolly pine and occasional older hardwood trees (diameter breast height [dbh]=45 cm [18 in.] and below). The Bankhead occurrence is along a narrow, sinuous ridgeline that is bordered by several heavily forested incised ravines. Specimens were collected near the edge of a small wildlife opening at an elevation of 286 to 299 meters (940 to 980 feet). Additionally, hunter donated heads of Appalachian cottontails were confirmed from the Black Pond area of Winston County during this same survey. Interestingly, much of the habitat in the Black Pond area is reclaimed strip mine land, which supports dense growths of loblolly pines, brambles, and regenerating hardwoods (Hart 2001).
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Reproductive activity occurs from late winter until late summer. Females produce several litters of three to eight young per year. Gestation period is approximately 28 days. Young are born in a simple depression in the ground that is lined with fur and grass and covered over with twigs and leaves when the female is away. Lactation lasts for about 16 days by which time the young are practically independent of the nest. Nests have been found in a variety of habitats including dense brush, woods, and hayfields. Following sunset, leave daytime retreat in dense vegetation to forage in more open habitats. Never seem to stray too far from protective cover. In summer, much of the diet consists of grasses, clover, and other herbaceous material as well as shrubs, twigs, buds, seeds, and fruit. Similar to other lagomorphs, this species engages in coprophagy (eats feces). A dietary shift occurs from predominantly herbaceous foods during summer to woody material in the winter (Choate et al. 1994, Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).
BASIS FOR STATUS CLASSIFICATION: Prior to the recent taxonomic revision of this species complex, mounting concern over the status and apparent decline of the New England cottontail prompted the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list S. transitionalis as a candidate for threatened or endangered status (Category II) in 1989. The same level of concern (Federal Register: November 15, 1994) was given to S. obscurus following its description and separation from S. transitionalis. In 1996, the Federal Category II listings were eliminated. Yet, several states throughout the respective distribution of the Appalachian and New England cottontail list the rabbit as a species of high conservation concern. In Alabama, the Appalachian cottontail occurs on the extreme periphery of its distribution and remains understudied. Since its initial discovery in the state in 1912, only five specimens from four localities have been reported and examined by mammalogists. Prior to a 2001 survey, the last reported collections were from 1979. As a species with a core distribution and apparent affinity for the higher elevations of the central and southern Appalachians, it is very likely that the Appalachian cottontail has always been relatively rare and restricted to small areas of suitable habitat in Alabama. Distribution in Alabama relatively unknown with the exception of a very few localized records. Nothing is known of the species’ interaction with its co-occurring relative, the eastern cottontail. Population size and demographics as well as home range sizes are completely unknown in this extreme southwestern periphery of its distribution. Although a game animal, hunting pressures do not appear to threaten its existence. Avid rabbit hunting generally is not pursued in the forested habitats and mountainous terrain that supports the Appalachian cottontail. Fragmentation of suitable habitat and large-scale conversions of natural landscapes to development, however, do threaten its persistence.
Author: Barry D. Hart