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  The Mammals of Texas - Online Edition

Eastern Cottontail
Order Lagomorpha : Family Leporidae : Sylvilagus floridanus (Allen)

Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus).  Photo by John L. Tveten.Description. A moderately large, rusty-brown cottontail with relatively short ears and large hind feet (ears 50-60% as long as hind feet). Upperparts deep ochraceous buff, heavily lined with blackish, giving a rusty or reddish-brown effect; sides paler and grayer; top of tail like back; rump dingy grayish, not conspicuously different from back; front and sides of legs deep, rich, rusty reddish; underside of neck buff or ochraceous buff, rest of underparts, including tail, white. Differs from S. audubonii, with which its range overlaps, in having small, smoothly rounded bullae (rather than large and rough) and relatively and actually shorter ears. External measurements average: total length, 418 mm; tail, 56 mm; hind foot, 92 mm; ear, 52 mm. Weight, 1-2 kg.

Species distribution mapDistribution in Texas. Occurs throughout eastern three-fourths of the state and in some areas of the Trans-Pecos.

Habits. Like other cottontails, this one is a denizen of brushland and marginal areas and seldom ventures far from brushy cover. In central Texas, it commonly frequents brush-dotted pastures, the brushy edges of cultivated fields, and well-drained streamsides. Occasionally, it inhabits poorly drained bottom lands with the swamp rabbit. In many places it is common along country roads, especially where the sides are grown up to dense vegetation and adjoining areas are heavily grazed or farmed.

These cottontails are active largely in the twilight hours and at night, when they venture to open pastures, meadows, or lawns to forage. They frequently live in the edges of towns and feed in gardens and flower beds. In the daytime they rest in beds in nearby thickets or in underground burrows and small culverts. On the coastal prairies of Texas, a population density of one cottontail to 1.8 ha is not unusual.

The food is variable with the season. They feed on a variety of grasses and forbs but when such vegetation is scarce, they eat the twigs and bark of shrubs and small trees. These rabbits are not sociable and are seldom seen feeding together.

Eastern cottontails are prolific breeders. In southern Texas the breeding season is year-long, although the frequency of breeding does fluctuate throughout the year. Breeding activity is stimulated by environmental factors, such as temperature and rainfall, which affect the growth of vegetation. As many as four or five litters of one to eight young (average, four) may be reared yearly. The gestation period is 28-29 days. The young are blind and helpless at birth, but grow rapidly; when 4-5 months old they are distinguished from adults only with difficulty. Young females born early in the year may mature sexually and produce young in their first summer but ordinarily, they do not breed until their second summer.

These cottontails are known to be preyed upon by hawks, barn owls, opossums, coyotes, foxes, and weasels. Doubtless, many others can be added to the list.

Remarks. Previously, cottontails from mountainous areas of the Trans-Pecos, including the Guadalupe and Chisos Mountains, were regarded as a distinct species (Sylvilagus robustus). Based on only nominal cranial differences with S. floridanus, these rabbits are now considered merely a subspecies of the eastern cottontail, S. f. robustus.

Photo credit: John L. Tveten.