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  The Mammals of Texas - Online Edition

Swamp Rabbit
Order Lagomorpha : Family Leporidae : Sylvilagus aquaticus (Bachman)

Swamp Rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus).  Photo by John L. Tveten.Description. Largest of the "cottontails" within its range; pelage coarse and short for a rabbit; upper parts grayish brown, heavily lined with blackish; rump, upperside of tail, and back of hind legs dull ochraceous brown; sides of head and body paler than back, less suffused with blackish; underparts, including underside of tail, white except for buffy underside of neck; front legs and tops of hind feet cinnamon rufous. External measurements average: total length, 534 mm; tail, 69 mm; hind foot, 106 mm; ear, 70 mm. Weight, 1.5-3 kg.

Species distribution mapDistribution in Texas. Found in eastern one-third of state west to Montague, Wise, and Bexar counties.

Habits. The swamp rabbit, as the name suggests, inhabits poorly drained river bottoms and coastal marshes. Well adapted to a semi-aquatic habitat in that its dense fur "waterproofs" its skin, the animal is at home in the water. In fact, it crosses rivers and streams on its own initiative, a habit usually not found in other rabbits in Texas. It is secretive by day and is seldom seen, except when frightened from its bed in some thicket, but its presence in an area is readily disclosed by the piles of fecal pellets deposited on stumps, down logs, or other elevations. Along the coast it is at home in cane thickets, hence the local name "cane cutter," but in inland areas it is restricted to the flood plains of rivers and streams and their associated tangles of shrubs, trees, and vines.

In southeast Texas, one swamp rabbit per 2.8 ha of poorly drained bottomland is typical. The rabbits frequent a definite local range, which they refuse to leave even when pursued by dogs. Their chief protection are thickets of briars or brush, rather than underground burrows. In this area both eastern cottontails (S. floridanus) and swamp rabbits occupy the creek and river bottoms in about equal numbers, but in the uplands only cottontails are found.

Little is known of their food habits although succulent vegetation including grasses, forbs, and the new shoots of shrubs are probably important.

The breeding season extends at least from January to September, but the peak is in February and March when green vegetation is available. Possibly two or more litters of two to three young are reared annually. After a gestation period of 39-40 days, the young are born in, or transferred to, surface nests composed of vegetation and lined with rabbit fur, or nests in holes in logs and stumps. A nest found at the base of a cypress stump was composed of Spanish moss and rabbit fur; it held six small rabbits. Another found under a long, fallen branch of a tree was lined with fur and held two young rabbits. At birth the young are covered with fur, but the eyes and ears are closed. This condition is not true of other cottontails. The eyes open and the young rabbit is able to walk in 2 or 3 days.

Among their known natural enemies are gray fox, horned owl, and alligator. Doubtless, they are preyed upon by many other species. Other than man, their chief enemy is floods.

Photo credit: John L. Tveten.