Periodic surveys of the two cottontail species help biologists monitor changes in population status and distribution. These surveys are useful in evaluating long term trends. Survey methods, such as hunter collections and road kills, provide substantial information on distribution, but the information is only as good as the amount of participation by interested people, and the geographic distribution of collected specimens and habitat sampling. 

Some surveys also analyze DNA in rabbit pellets. When locations of rabbits are gleaned from the survey data, biologists will be able document habitats where New England cottontails are found. Wildlife managers can recommend or implement habitat management techniques to maintain conditions favorable to the species. Data from the surveys also provide a baseline for more detailed site-specific studies. Cottontail specimens collected are typically placed in museums for future study and reference.

Past Research

From 1950 to 1952, graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, working with the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (MassWildlife), collected 938 cottontails from throughout Massachusetts. Site specific data remain available for 654 (70%) of these, which include 508 (78%) Eastern cottontails from 13 counties and 146 (22%) New England cottontails from 11 counties.

From 1960-62, another student collected 337 (62%) Eastern cottontails and 207 (38%) New England cottontails, mostly from within a 20-mile radius of Amherst, Hampshire County, including parts of both Franklin and Hampshire counties.

In 1970-72, a third cooperating student collected 36 cottontails in Massachusetts as part of a regional study. These included 28 (78%) Eastern cottontails from 5 counties and 8 (22%) New England cottontails from 3 counties.

MassWildlife biologists conducted a fourth survey during 1979-81, principally collecting specimens from cooperating hunters. They received 401 (78%) Eastern cottontails from 13 counties and 114 (22%) New England cottontails from 7 counties.

The next MassWildlife survey, in 1991-93, received 967 cottontails, mostly from hunters. These included 929 (96%) Eastern cottontails from 13 counties and 38 (4%) New England cottontails from 6 counties. The sample may have been skewed due to the lack of participants in some counties; however, the predominance of Eastern cottontails is apparent.

In 2000-2003, 183 cottontails were received from 9 counties. All specimens were Eastern cottontails. However, outside the survey period, New England cottontails were confirmed from Barnstable, Berkshire, and Hampden counties.

References

Chapman, J.A., J.G. Hockman, and W.R. Edwards. 1982. Cottontails. Pages 83-123 in J.A. Chapman and G.A. Feldhamer, eds. Wild mammals of North America. Biology, Economics, Management. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1147pp.

DeGraaf, R.M. and M. Yamasaki. 2001. New England wildlife: habitat, natural history, and distribution. Univ. Press of New England, Hanover, N.H., 482pp.

Godin, A.J. 1977. Wild mammals of New England. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 304pp.

Wilson, D.E. and S. Ruff, eds. 1999. The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 750pp.