The Queens Zoo started breeding New England Cottontails, this year, as part of a collaborative effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), various state agencies in NY and New England, universities, public and private landowners, other conservation NGOs, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo (Providence, R.I.), in an effort to boost the wild population.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the New England Cottontail as “Vulnerable”. The rabbit was recently reviewed for listing as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. The USFWS found that federal protection was unnecessary, as current conservation efforts have shown productive results, and ongoing plans are in place to recover the species.
New England Cottontails have light brown coats and look strikingly similar to the more populous Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, which is designated “Least Concern” by the IUCN. The Eastern Cottontail is not native and was introduced to the region in the early 1900s, primarily for hunting purposes. DNA analysis is the most reliable way to distinguish between the two species.
The Queens Zoo’s breeding program takes place in an off-exhibit space, and the rabbits are not on exhibit for public viewing. Special habitats and conditions have to be created to encourage courtship and breeding. The adult males and females are initially kept in their own enclosures, and then introduced in specially designed rabbit pens, where they get to know each other and hopefully reproduce. These pens have hay beds, nest boxes, and other features so they can pair up or separate much as they would in the wild. After a week of living together, the rabbits are separated, and each one goes back to its own enclosure. These environmental variations are important to the regular reproductive cycle of the species.
This season, 11 young rabbits (known as kits) were born at the Queens Zoo and sent to New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Once there, biologists from the partnering agencies first introduced them to a one acre outdoor acclimation pen and fitted them with transmitters to track the migration patterns of the rabbits. When ready, they were fully released into suitable forest and thicket-lined habitats. Overall, between all the partnering organizations, 41 rabbits were released this year.
“The New England Cottontail is an example of a species that can be saved if enough people and organizations come together to help protect it,” said Scott Silver, Director and Curator of the WCS Queens Zoo. “We’re proud to be part of this amazing coalition of agencies and the Roger Williams Park Zoo, dedicated to conserving this ecologically important animal.”
Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and General Director of WCS Zoos and Aquarium, said, “In only a few short months, the Queens Zoo’s new New England Cottontail breeding program has proven successful. The WCS zoos and aquarium inspire people to value nature when they visit our facilities, but we also have a commitment to conservation through our extensive on-site breeding programs for both local and global species that are experiencing challenges in the wild.”
New England Cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis) need young forests with dense thickets, and brushy areas to survive and rear young, but many of these habitats have disappeared in the rabbits’ native New England. The species’ range decreased 86 percent since the 1960s. Essential young forest habitat has disappeared, due to development, and remaining forests have matured with more tree cover but less protective thicket that is needed for New England Cottontails.
Human suppression of forest fires, beaver activity, and other natural processes further reduced forest succession and suitable rabbit habitat. Because of this dramatic decline in its population, state wildlife agencies listed the species as locally endangered or a species of special concern throughout parts of New England. A robust conservation strategy has halted the decline and allowed the rabbit to rebound in certain areas of its range. The sustained collaborative conservation effort will not only benefit New England Cottontails but will also help support populations of many other at-risk native mammals, birds, and reptiles that are also struggling due to loss of young forest habitat.