The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cottontails, Jackrabbits, and Hares
by Ro Wauer

A pair of cottontail was frolicking in my yard a few days ago. This was the first time we had seen cottontails in the yard for several months. Being at the lower end of the food chain for most of the predators that also frequent my yard, their presence was surprising but especially pleasing. When we first moved to our house in 1989, cottontails were commonplace. But within the last dozen years or so their numbers have seriously declined so that now it is a special treat when they do occur.

The cottontail that resides within the Golden Crescent area is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Its range extends throughout all of Texas and the eastern half of North America and southward through most of eastern Mexico. Three additional Sylvilagus cottontails/rabbits occur in Texas. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is found in swampy areas along the Gulf Coast and northward into the pineywoods. The desert cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni) is found in the western half of Texas and much of the West, from Canada into central Mexico. And the Davis Mountains cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus) is found only in the mountainous areas of West Texas, from Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains north to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains. Five other Sylvilagus cottontails occur in the United States. The mountain cottontail is found in the Intermountain West, the brush rabbit occurs only along the West Coast, the marsh rabbit is found in Florida and along the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia south, the Appalachian cottontail occurs only within the Appalachians, and the New England cottontail in found only in New England.

The other group of rabbit-like mammals is the jackrabbits and hares, all of the genus Lepus. But only one of these – the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) – occurs in Texas. This long-eared, long-legged rabbit can occur throughout the state, but prefers hot, dry scrublands rather that oak dominated woodland areas. Three other jackrabbits can be found in North America: the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) occurs through the northern portion of North America, the white-sided jackrabbit (Lepus callotis) is found only in extreme southwestern New Mexico, and the antelope jackrabbit (Lepus alleni) is found only in south-central Arizona and southward into Mexico.

North America also has three hares, also in the genus Lepus. The best know of these is the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) of northern Canada and all of Alaska, the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is found only in the far northern portions of North America, and the Alaskan hare (Lepus othus) is restricted to coastal Alaska. These three snow-adapted species are generally brown in summer and white in winter, and their ears are smaller than the jackrabbits.

There are about 80 species of lagomorphs (order of cottontails, jackrabbits and hares) throughout the world. Although these mammals may resemble rodents, they differ by their arrangement of their front (incisor) teeth, with a large tooth in front on each side and a small peglike tooth directly behind it. Lagomorphs are mainly diurnal and the food is almost entirely vegetable matter, such as grasses, forbs and bark, and none of the lagomorphs hibernate. They are a unique group of mammals. And the common lagomorph representative in the Golden Crescent is the eastern cottontail.