Researchers on this project include Dr. Tracy Rittenhouse, Assistant Professor, Howard Kilpatrick, Adjunct Faculty/Research Scientist of Wildlife, and Kelly O'Connor, MS Student.
The story of the New England Cottontail (NEC) (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is about more than just a rabbit. The NEC has become a key representative of a vast array of species that are declining due to a rapidly changing landscape and the the loss of a key habitat: young forest, or early successional forest. Historically, fire, timber harvest, hurricanes, and even beaver activity would have promoted the generation of young forest habitat. Today most of these processes have been removed from the landscape, and as a result, what was once young forest has been allowed to mature. This loss of critical habitat, combined with the introduction of the Eastern Cottontail (EC) (Sylvilagus floridanus) has resulted in a dramatic reduction in NEC populations across their range.
Research is underway throughout the New England Region that aims to gain a better understanding of the cause(s) and nature of the decline of the NEC, as well as to evaluate potential strategies for conserving and expanding NEC populations. We are focused on evaluating survival in both NEC and EC, as EC are now found in many areas traditionally inhabited only by NEC. By fitting rabbits with radio collars and monitoring their movements frequently, we'll be able to generate survival estimates for the two species. In addition, by collecting data on the nature of individual mortality events, we hope to identify key sources of cottontail mortality, and if these sources differ between the two species.
Our NEC survival project is in collaboration with the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Division of Wildlife, and is one of many research initiatives focused on this species. In addition to monitoring survival, other work is being done to explore microhabitat use by both NEC and EC, and to map distribution of NEC across the state. We hope the information gained from these projects will be useful in preventing a further decline in NEC populations.