|Sylvilagus floridanus (Allen)|
Don Linzey & Christy Brecht
Wytheville Community College
Wytheville, Virginia 24382
Last updated: 26 November, 2005
- Adult total length:
16 - 17 in. (407 - 423 mm)
1 - 1 3/4 in. (26 - 47 mm)
- Hind foot:
3 - 4 in. (90 - 100 mm)
2 - 4 lbs. (900 - 1800 g)
The eastern cottontail is a medium-sized rabbit in which the nape of
the neck is rusty. The dorsal coloration varies from reddish-brown to
grayish-brown sprinkled with black. The ears are dark grayish-tan
bordered with black. The underparts are grayish-white except for the
chest which is brownish. The short, fluffy tail is brownish above and
white below. Because the tail is usually turned upward when the rabbit
runs, the white part is the most conspicuous and is the source of the
common name, cottontail. The tops of the hind feet are tan to whitish.
Five toes are present on the forefeet and four on the hind feet.
Females possess four pairs of mammae.
The eastern cottontail is the most common and geographically
widespread of all North American rabbits. It ranges from Costa
Rica through Mexico to Arizona and New Mexico and throughout
most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.
left lateral view of
skull and mandible
dorsal view of skull
ventral view of skull
The eastern cottontail is found in a variety of habitats including old
fields, brushy clearings, brier patches, hedgerows, orchards, and along
the edges of woodlands. The Komareks found this species most often in
open woods and broomsedge fields. Although Kellogg (
1939) found one individual in a rhododendron thicket in hemlock woods,
he noted that they were most abundant in abandoned farm fields overgrown
with broomsedge, weeds and brush, brier patches, and thickets bordering
deciduous woods and small streams.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
The eastern cottontail has been recorded at all
elevations in the park (Linzey, 1995a
Since the Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus
obscurus) also occurs in the park and looks very
similar to the eastern cottontail, the following sight
records may apply to either species:
- Blount Co.:
Cades Cove (1,750 - 1,900 feet).
- Cocke Co.:
Near Low Gap (2,700 feet).
- Sevier Co.:
Park headquarters; Greenbrier (1,800 -
3,000 feet); Little River Road near Elkmont
(1,900 - 2,000 feet).
- Cocke Co.:
Low Gap Trail (3,900 feet).
- Sevier Co.:
Mt. LeConte (6,593 feet).
- State (Tenn. - N.C.) line:
Collins Gap (6,000 feet); Clingmans Dome.
The basic mechanism controlling the onset of breeding, particularly
in the male, is daylength. However, the frequency and extent of
late-winter periods of warm and cold temperatures result in some
variation in the onset of breeding from year to year. Colder than
normal temperatures delay breeding, while warmer temperatures
result in earlier breeding. Each female produces several litters
of two to six young during the breeding season with most breeding
in the park occurring between March and August. Gestation is 26 to
28 days. A female may be bred again before her young are a day old.
Young have been observed in May and June and half-grown cottontails
have been recorded in July and September. Three young cottontails
whose eyes had just opened were observed on May 20 by Stupka
(1937). A nest containing young was discovered
on the summit of Mt. LeConte.
Shortly before the litter arrives, the female cottontail digs a
nest cavity in the ground about 15 to 18 cm deep. This depression
is usually hidden by tall grass or bushes. The nest, or form, is
lined with grass, and tufts of fur pulled from the female's body.
Newborn cottontails are pink, blind, and helpless. The female
normally visits the nest only near dawn to nurse the young. During
the day she keeps her distance so that attention will not be drawn
to the nest. When the female leaves the nest, she covers the young
with grass and fur for warmth and scratches leaves over the nest to hide it.
Young cottontails are well-furred in a week, open their eyes between
six and nine days, and leave their nests at about two weeks of age.
Many cottontails breed for the first time in the spring following their birth.
Most cottontails die before they are a year old, but there are
reports of wild individuals reaching five and seven years of age
- Terrestrial Ecology
Eastern cottontails are chiefly nocturnal, leaving their
forms with the approach of dusk and remaining active until
late morning. Most of the daylight hours are spent in a
burrow, in a form amid dense vegetation, or in the shelter
of a brush pile. Most species of cottontails do not construct
their own burrows, but, instead, occupy burrows made by
other animals, particularly woodchucks.
Locomotion is usually by short jumps or hops, although faster
progress may be made by longer leaps. Cottontails may attain a
speed of about 29 km per hour, although this cannot be
maintained for more than 0.8 km (Linzey,
1998). Cottontails depend more on ducking and dodging than
upon speed to escape their enemies and will often travel in a
circuitous route and return to near their starting place.
Eastern cottontails do not take to water readily, but they
can swim if necessary.
The cottontail is solitary. Seldom are two or more found
together, except for the young and during mating season. The
home range size varies from a fraction of a hectare up to 9.4
ha, although breeding males may range across an area of 41 ha
or more. In general, males range more widely than females.
Hearing is acute, and cottontails can move their ears at will
to catch sounds from various directions. Their senses of smell
and sight are excellent.
Cottontails are herbivorous and eat many kinds of vegetation,
their choice depending on the seasonal availability of the
plants. Foods include grass, clover, cultivated and wild flowers,
and many types of cultivated crops. The list of plant items
eaten is nearly endless. During the winter months they feed
upon twigs and bark and may girdle fruit trees and ornamental
shrubs. Rabbit cuttings are easily identified because they are
made at a sharp 45 degree angle from the vertical axis, which
looks like they had been cut with pruning shears. Deer cuttings
are pulled off, leaving a ragged edge.
Rabbits and hares expel two types of fecal pellets - greenish
and brown. The greenish pellets contain partially digested
vegetation and are commonly reingested, a process known as
coprophagy. Greenish pellets have a high protein content and
contain large amounts of B vitamins produced by intestinal
bacteria (Hansen and Flinders, 1969).
Reingestion allows the animals to spend relatively little time
exposed to predators while in the field actually feeding. They
consume green vegetation rapidly and then make optimum use of it
in the safety of their brushpile or burrow. It is somewhat
analogous to cud-chewing in cows and other ruminant animals.
- Predators and Defense
Black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) have been observed
feeding on young cottontails in the park. The stomachs of timber
rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) taken in July and
September contained half-grown individuals (
Stupka, 1942, 1947;
Savage, 1967). A coyote was observed carrying a rabbit in
June, 1992 (Linzey, 1995b).
Ticks (Haemophysalis leporis-palustris), fleas,
and botfly larvae (Cuterebra sp.) were recorded
by Komarek and Komerek (1938).
Links to Other Sites
- Special Protection Status
The eastern cottontail is an important game animal
and is protected as a game species except during
- In Park:
All plants and animals are protected within
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Collection
requires a permit which is usually granted only
for research or educational purposes.
- Map development
- Web page design & coding
- Denise Lim, University of Georgia, Athens
- John Pickering, University of Georgia, Athens
Chapman, J.A., J. G. Hockman, and M. M.Ojeda C. 1980.
Sylvilagus floridanus. Mammalian Species No.
136: 1 - 8. American Society of Mammalogists.
Hansen, R. M. and J. T. Flinders. 1969.
Food habits of North American hares. Colorado State University
Range Science Department Science Series 31.
Kellogg, R. 1939.
Annotated list of Tennessee mammals. Proceedings of the United
States National Museum 86 (3051): 245 - 303.
Komarek, E. V. and R. Komarek. 1938.
Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains. Bulletin of the Chicago
Academy of Sciences 5 (6): 137 - 162.
Linzey, D. W. 1995a.
Mammals of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Blacksburg,
Virginia: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Inc.
Linzey, D. W. 1995b.
Mammals of Great Smoky Mountains National Park-1995 Update.
Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 111(1):1-81.
Linzey, D. W. 1998.
The Mammals of Virginia. Blacksburg, Virginia:
The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Inc.
Savage, T. 1967.
The diet of rattlesnakes and copperheads in the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park. Copeia 1967 (1): 226 - 227.
Stupka, A. 1935 - 63.
Nature Journal, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 28 vols.
(years) each with index. (Typewritten copy in files of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park library).
Last modified: 8 May, 2002