The Secretary of the Interior is in New Hampshire today, partly to announce that the New England cottontail won’t be put on the endangered-species list because restoration efforts here and in other parts of New England have stemmed its population decline. The Globe has a story about it today.
I’ve written about this many times in the past years, and I think the most interesting question is why the New England cottontail is in trouble but the too-similar-for-laymen-to-see-the-difference Eastern cottontail is doing pretty well. Here’s what I wrote last year as part of this column, although you might hit the Nashua Telegraph paywall if you click through:
How come one of them is healthy and one isn’t? Habits, mostly.
The Eastern cottontail “is more of a generalist,” said Adrienne Kovach, a research associate professor of natural resources at UNH who has done plenty of cottontail-related research. “Their habitat preferences are broader: They’re the ones you’ll see on a golf course, even; they’re not as reliant on a thicket, on cover.”
That may be because the Eastern cottontail is better able to detect aerial predators, apparently due to differences in eye structure between the species. As a result, they don’t freak out so much when they don’t have thickets to hide among.
Small difference in eyesight might be what saves one species and kills another, then. Which is why different species exist, come to think of it – small differences that determine how they do in the local environment.
Restoration of cottontail habitat means creating scrubland where they can forage and hide – places that are somewhere between a field and a woodlands, with thickets and brambles and other stuff that we humans don’t like much. This is why the rabbit is in trouble, actually – we tend to change scrublands into something we prefer, and the rabbits suffer.