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Native of the Week: Eastern cottontail rabbit


Species: Eastern cottontail rabbit

Scientific name: Sylvilagus floridanus

Nicknames: None

Claim to fame: Cottontail rabbits have long been a common and popular member of Missouri’s outdoors. Rabbit hunting is not as common now as it was in the mid-1900s, but the cottontail is still a prominent game animal in much of Missouri. Missouri’s rabbit season runs from Oct. 1 through Feb. 15. In urban settings, they’re considered both a popular wildlife sighting and a

garden pest.

Species status: Cottontail rabbits can be found throughout the state.

First discovered: The first scientific description of the Eastern cottontail was written by the American naturalist Joel Asaph Allen in 1890. Allen was one of America’s leading naturalist during the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries. One of the highlights of his work was “Allen’s Rule,” a principle he formulated stating that the colder the environment in which animals live, the shorter body parts they have.

Family matters: The Eastern cottontail belongs to the mammal family Leporidae. This group of approximately 50 species is commonly referred to as the rabbits and hares.

Length: up to 17 inches

Diet: Eastern cottontails feed almost entirely on plants, preferring succulent green vegetation.

Plant foods vary seasonally, but include clovers, Kentucky bluegrass, cheatgrass and lespedeza.

Weight: two to four pounds

Distinguishing characteristics: Eastern cottontails’ fur is reddish-brown to grayish-brown, sprinkled with black. The animal’s most distinguishing features are its long ears, its leaping and running abilities and its white fluffy “cottontail.” These are evolutionary compensations that offset a lack of self-defense skills. Longer ears give a cottontail better hearing. Their long leaps

and zigzag running style helps cottontails escape predators. It’s theorized the fluffy white ball of a tail also has a protective role. Since the back and sides of a cottontail are darker in color, the white tail is highly conspicuous when the rabbit is running. Therefore, a predator in pursuit of a rabbit usually finds its attention fixed upon the white tail rather than on the creature as a whole.

When the rabbit suddenly halts and squats to hide the tail from view, the pursuer is frequently baffled. With the disappearance of the white spot, the whole animal seems to have disappeared. These few moments of confusion may provide the cottontail all it needs to dart to safety.

Life span: Cottontails have been known to live 10 years, but that lifespan is rarely achieved.

Habitat: Cottontails are highly adaptable and are found in various types of cover. However, they prefer an open, brushy terrain or a forest edge habitat.

Life cycle: Eastern cottontails have prolific reproductive cycles, a trait which is common among animals that are food sources for a multitude of predators. Breeding begins in February.

Pregnancy is 26 to 28 days. An adult female can produce up to eight litters per year. Litters can vary between one and nine offspring – the average being four or five. It has been estimated that one female can produce 35 offspring during a single breeding season. Rabbits are born hair-less and blind, but during the first week they become completely furred. Eyes and ears open six to eight days after birth. Young leave the nest 13 to 16 days after birth. Rabbits reach sexual maturity in a few months, which means most young born early in the year are having offspring of their own by late summer.


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