Division biologists are asking for the help of hunters, highway department workers, animal control officers, and other interested citizens across the state to provide DFW with cottontail carcasses or cottontail skulls for a statewide survey.
During the winter of 2010-11, the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) began a survey of cottontail rabbits to assess the distribution and population of New England cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis), the only cottontail rabbit species native to the northeastern United States and rarely seen. Two kinds of cottontail rabbits are found in Massachusetts, the common non-native Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and the New England cottontail.
"The reason we need cottontail skulls is that it is virtually impossible to tell the two species apart when you see them in the field." said David Scarpitti, DFW Upland Game Project Leader. "They can only be positively identified by looking at skull characteristics or through DNA analyses. Gathering a sample collection of cottontail heads or skulls from across the state is our best method to use when investigating rabbit population characteristics and distribution." Scarpitti noted that survey methods such as hunter and road kill collections 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. "The more samples we have from different parts of the state, the better we can understand where New England cottontails are found."
Since the first appeal in December of 2010, MassWildlife has received approximately 500 cottontail specimens. From the collected specimens, about 10% have been identified as New England cottontails, and significantly, several new local populations of New England cottontails have been identified. The majority of cottontail carcasses came from the eastern and southeastern parts of the state. MassWildlife needs a sample that is characteristic of the entire Commonwealth and is especially in need of more cottontail specimens from Worcester County and all points west. MassWildlife will still gratefully accept cottontails from anywhere in the state.
The location where the carcass was collected is the single most important piece of data used to assess the cottontails' distribution. Please make every effort to record as specific a collection location as possible. A marked topographic map, Google map, or GPS coordinates are ideal, but any detailed, specific location information will greatly aid biologists.
Carcasses or cottontail heads should be placed in a plastic bag and frozen until they can be dropped off at a DFW District Office , DFW hatchery , or DFW Field Headquarters in Westborough. Please include a note with contact information, date of collection and detailed location information such as town, street or land parcel.
During the last 25-50 years, the distribution New England cottontail has been drastically reduced across their range in New England. "New England cottontails are scarce due to the lack of suitable habitat," said Scarpitti. "Unlike the Eastern cottontails seen in neighborhood yards, parks, fields and pastures, New England cottontails require dense, thick shrublands to hide from predators and survive cold, harsh winters. Shrublands, regenerating clearcuts, densely vegetated wet areas, utility/powerline rights-of-way, and other thicket habitats provide the necessary year-round food and cover requirements for cottontails." New England cottontails also require large expansive patches of dense thicket habitat, often a minimum of 10-20 acres in size. These habitats types are very uncommon, amounting to less than 5% of all forested habitat acreage in Massachusetts. DFW is creating shrubland and young forest habitats in suitable locations on Wildlife Management Areas and is actively encouraging other landowners to create shrubland and young forest habitats in appropriate areas.
The cottontail survey is part of a range-wide effort called the New England Cottontail Initiative (NEC), focusing on distribution and habitat restoration of New England cottontails throughout New England and New York. The NEC Initiative involves partnerships with state and federal natural resource agencies, conservation organizations and other large landowners focusing on surveys, habitat identification and habitat restoration efforts. Funding for the New England Cottontail Initiative comes from a competitive State Wildlife Grant awarded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to a partnership of New England and New York state wildlife agencies and the Wildlife Management Institute.