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Desert Cottontail @ Sonoran Desert, Arizona. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

Desert Cottontail

Desert Cottontail - Sylvilagus audubonii - Distribution MapThe desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), or Audubon’s cottontail, is a common species of rabbit found in western United States and Mexico. In appearance it is quite similar to the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), but with larger ears. The ears are also carried upright more than its European peer. The tail is short with white fluffy fur, like other cottontails. Body is grayish-brown in color, and the undersides are white. It can reach a length of 33-43 cm (13-17 in) and weigh up to 1.5 kg (3.3 lb). Females tend to be a bit larger than males. Ears can be 8-10 cm (3.1-3.9 in) long.

Diet and habitat

The desert cottontail prefers semi deserts and arid grasslands, but can also be found in forests at higher elevations around the desert and grassland areas. The desert cottontail has been found as high as 2,000 meters above sea level (6,600 ft). It will mostly feed on grass, but it will also include herbs, vegetables, cacti and other plant materials in its diet. It is mostly active feeding early morning and late evening, and is rarely seen in the middel of the day. Like other lagomorphs, it will eat its own droppings to extract as much nutrition from its food as possible.

Behaviour and reproduction

Desert cottontails do not live in social burrow systems, but will show a high level of tolerance towards other individuals within their home range. They do not create their own burrows, but will take shelter in burrows made by other animals. A female will, however, create a nest by digging a hole in the ground before giving birth. She will line the nest with fur and grass. Mating season lasts from January to the end of summer. After a successful copulation, a month will pass before she gives birth to 1-6 young. They are born naked and blind, but will grow fast. They leave the nest after two-three weeks, but will stay with the mother for another three. They will be ready to mate after three months. Most females have two to four litters a year, some females can have as many as six. It is a shortlived species, with many individuals not living past its first year.

Predation

The desert cottontail is a primary prey species for a lot of predators, such as wolves, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, birds of prey, many small mammalian carnivores, and snakes. Even squirrels could go for a young or weak individual. Humans have also had a long history of hunting desert cottontails, for both meat and fur. If a predator is even-sized with the cottontail, it will try to defend itself by slapping its front paws at the enemy.

Status

The desert cottontail is common and widespread, and there are no threats to the population. It is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List. Some local populations might be threatened by habitat loss and predation by alien species, such as domestic cats and dogs. It is often hunted for sport and meat, but this is carefully manage by local authorities.

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