Can run up to 18 miles per hour
Eastern Cottontail Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Sylvilagus floridanus
Eastern Cottontail Conservation Status
Eastern Cottontail Facts
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The eastern cottontail belongs to the rabbit and hare family Leporidae. They range throughout North America, Latin America, and northern South America. In fact, this rabbit ranks as the most common rabbit species in all of North America. They are prolific breeders, with a single female capable of producing up to 35 kits in a year. You are most likely to spot them in the morning or evening when they come out from cover to feed. That said, you can find them out in the open at any time of day.
5 Eastern Cottontail Facts
- Eastern cottontails possess nearly 100 million scent receptors in their noses and can twitch their noses between 20 and 120 times per minute.
- Although wild eastern cottontails usually only live 15 months, they can live up to 9 years in captivity.
- They can reach a maximum speed of up to 18 miles per hour.
- When running from predators, they often zigzag from side-to-side to confuse their pursuer.
- Eastern cottontail kits are often completely independent by the time they reach 3 to 5 weeks old.
Like all rabbits, the eastern cottontail is a mammal in the class Mammalia. It is a member of the order Lagomorpha, which includes two families, Leporidae and Ochotonidae. It belongs to the family Leporidae, which includes both rabbits and hares. The term Leporidae derives from the Latin word lepus, meaning “hare,” and the suffix –idae, meaning “resembling” or “form of.” In other words, Leporidae, translates to “those that resemble hares.”
The eastern cottontail is part of the cottontail rabbit genus Sylvilagus. Its genus name stems from the Latin word sylva, meaning “woods,” and the Greek word lagōs, meaning “hare.” Meanwhile, its specific name, floridanus, translates roughly to “of Florida” or “from Florida.” Like the first part of its common name, the term refers to the fact that these rabbits are most common in the eastern half of North America. Finally, the term cottontail refers to their short, cotton-ball-like tails, a characteristic feature of every species in the Sylvilagus genus.
The average eastern cottontail features a squat, robust body. They possess long ears and feet, and a short, fluffy tail. Most possess red-brown or gray-brown fur, although the underside and tail both appear white. Additionally, their coat can change color and length depending on the season. During winter, they tend to look grayer and have longer hair. Their longer hair helps to keep them warm, while the increased gray in their coat allows them to blend into their surrounding environment more easily. Meanwhile, eastern cottontails look browner and have shorter hair during the summer.
On average, eastern cottontails measure between 14 and 19 inches long and weigh around 2.6 pounds. That said, they can weigh anywhere from 1.8 to 4.4 pounds, with females typically weighing heavier than males. Generally speaking, eastern cottontails that live farther north tend to grow larger than cottontails that live in southern regions.
Evolution and History
Fossil records indicate that the first rabbits and hares evolved sometime during the late Eocene Epoch. This means that the ancient ancestors of modern cottontails emerged at least 33 million years ago. Today, the eastern cottontail rabbit serves as the type species for the genus Sylvilagus. Outside of its own genus, the closest relative of them is the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). Meanwhile, eastern cottontails are more distantly related to European and Asian rabbits, and even further removed from hares.
Eastern cottontail rabbits are notoriously skittish. When threatened, they often run in a zigzag pattern to escape their pursuer. At top speed, they can run up to 18 miles per hour. That said, they rarely come out in the open except when feeding. When not feeding, they spend most of their time hiding in thick cover or in underground burrows.
Eastern cottontails are crepuscular, meaning they become most active around dusk and dawn. However, you can encounter them outside at any time of the day. Even in cold climates, they do not hibernate and thus stay active year-round.
When searching for threats, eastern cottontails may stand up on their hind legs. This increases their ability to hear any nearby predators. You’re unlikely to spot them out in the open on windy or rainy days, as the excess noise can interfere with their hearing and prevent them from detecting predators.
You can find eastern cottontails throughout much of North America and Latin America. They also range throughout the northern part of South America. They are widely distributed throughout the central and eastern United States, parts of southern Canada, central and eastern Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. While you can find them in the northwestern and southwestern United States, they occur in much smaller ranges in these regions.
Eastern cottontails often live in and around fields, meadows, pastures, and clearings. They may also live in woodlands, thickets, swamps, and wetlands. As a rule, they tend to avoid dense forests or deserts. To survive, they prefer areas that offer both plenty of food and cover for them to stay safe from predators. Despite what you may think, they do not build burrows underground. Instead, they will take over burrows vacated by other animals, or construct nests above ground in deep cover.
Like all rabbits, eastern cottontails are herbivores that feed almost exclusively on plant material. They feed on all fours and use their nose to move food directly in front of their paws. On rare occasions, they may use their paws to reach food above their heads. Generally speaking, they always eat the cleanest part of a plant first.
The diet of eastern cottontails varies depending on the location. By some estimates, eastern cottontails feed on anywhere from 70 to 145 different plant species. Common food items include grasses, sedges, leaves, bark, twigs, flowers, and fruits. In summer, they mostly feed on grasses and sedges. Meanwhile, their diet shifts mostly to twigs, bark, and buds in winter. They will also sometimes eat small insects. That said, these insects are most likely consumed by accident and not purposefully targeted. Additionally, eastern cottontails consume their own feces, making them coprophagous. They produce two types of pellet droppings, one of which they consume to increase nutrient absorption.
Predators and Threats
Eastern cottontail rabbits near the bottom of the food chain. As such, numerous different predators feed on them. Common mammalian predators include cats, dogs, bobcats, foxes, weasels, raccoons, and minks. Additionally, possums, skunks, and badgers may prey on juveniles. Other, non-mammalian predators include snakes and birds such as owls, hawks, and goshawks. According to most estimates, predation is the number one risk faced by eastern cottontails, with predation accounting for upwards of 40% of all eastern cottontail deaths.
Eastern Cottontail Reproduction and Life Cycle
The breeding season for eastern cottontails typically begins in February or March and ends around September. Temperature determines the start and end of the breeding season. As a result, eastern cottontails that live in colder climates tend to start breeding later and end sooner than rabbits that breed in warmer climates. Similarly, rabbits that live in colder climates tend to have fewer litters per year compared to rabbits in warmer climates.
Although eastern cottontails act skittish toward predators and humans, they can act very territorial toward other rabbits. These rabbits are promiscuous, and males typically mate with multiple females. Females rabbits have anywhere from 1 to 7 litters per year, with an average of 3 to 4 litters per female. The gestation period lasts for 25 to 35 days, after which the female gives birth to 1 to 12 kits, with 5 kits being the average.
Eastern cottontail rabbits reach sexual maturity between 2 and 3 months old. Although most only live up to 15 months in the wild, they can live up to 9 years in captivity.
Eastern Cottontail Population
Over the last few decades, eastern cottontail rabbit populations have declined throughout much of their native range. The main reason for this decline likely stems from a loss of prime habitat due to increased development of land for housing, transportation, or agricultural use. By some estimates, nearly 10 rabbits get killed every year in traffic collisions for every 1 mile of road in their natural range. Moreover, millions of rabbits every year get killed by predators and hunters. Despite these losses, eastern cottontail rabbits remain the most common rabbit species in the Americas. While no accurate total population metrics exist, the eastern cottontail population likely numbers in the tens or hundreds of millions. As a result, the IUCN classifies the eastern cottontail rabbit as a species of Least Concern.View all 117 animals that start with E
Eastern Cottontail FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are eastern cottontails omnivores, herbivores, or carnivores?
Eastern cottontails are herbivores that primarily eat leaves, twigs, barks, grasses, sedges, and fruits. They will also eat their own feces and the occasional insect, although these insects are likely most often eaten by accident.
Can eastern cottontails see in 360 degrees?
Eastern cottontails possess large, offset eyes and can see nearly 360 degrees. That said, they do have a blind spot directly in front of their nose.
Do eastern cottontail rabbits make good pets?
Eastern cottontail rabbits are wild animals. As such, they do not make good pets. You should not try to trap or catch an eastern cottontail rabbit or raise one as a pet.
Do eastern cottontail rabbits mate for life?
Eastern cottontail rabbits are highly promiscuous and do not mate for life. Typically, male eastern cottontails will mate with multiple females.
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- 03/10/2023, Available here: https://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/Species/Mammals/Eastern-Cottontail-Rabbit
- 03/10/2023, Available here: https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/rabbit/eastern-cottontail/
- 03/10/2023, Available here: https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/eastern-cottontail-cottontail-rabbit
- 03/10/2023, Available here: https://www.esf.edu//aec/adks/mammals/cottontail.php