New England cottontail
July 25, 2014

Researchers Work To Save Endangered New England Cottontail

Lori Wright, NH Agricultural Experiment Station, University of New Hampshire

Scientists Use DNA Analysis to Prevent Extinction of Only Native Rabbit in New Hampshire and Maine

Scientists with the NH Agricultural Experiment Station are working to restore New Hampshire and Maine’s only native rabbit after new research based on genetic monitoring has found that in the last decade, cottontail populations in northern New England have become more isolated and seen a 50 percent contraction of their range.

The endangered New England cottontail is now is at risk of becoming extinct in the region, according to NH Agricultural Experiment Station researchers at the University of New Hampshire College of Life Sciences and Agriculture who believe that restoring habitats is the key to saving the species.

“The New England cottontail is a species of great conservation concern in the Northeast. This is our only native rabbit and is an integral component of the native New England wildlife. Maintaining biodiversity gives resilience to our landscape and ecosystems,” said NHAES researcher Adrienne Kovach, research associate professor of natural resources at UNH.

New England cottontails have been declining for decades. However, NHAES researchers have found that in the last decade, the New England cottontail population in New Hampshire and Maine has contracted by 50 percent; a decade ago, cottontails were found as far north as Cumberland, Maine.

The majority of research on New England cottontails has come out of UNH, much of it under the leadership of John Litvaitis, professor of wildlife ecology, who has studied the New England cottontail for three decades. Kovach’s research expands on this knowledge by using DNA analysis to provide new information on the cottontail’s status, distribution, genetic diversity, and dispersal ecology.

The greatest threat and cause of the decline of the New England cottontail is the reduction and fragmentation of their habitat, Kovach said. Fragmentation of habitats occurs when the cottontail’s habitat is reduced or eliminated due to the maturing of forests or land development. Habitats also can become fragmented by roads or natural landscape features, such as bodies of water.

“Cottontails require thicketed habitats, which progress from old fields to young forests. Once you have a more mature forest, the cottontail habitat is reduced. A lot of other species rely on these thicket habitats, including bobcats, birds, and reptiles. Many thicket-dependent species are on decline, and the New England cottontail is a representative species for this kind of habitat and its conservation,” Kovach said.

This research, which was funded in part by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, is presented in the article “A multistate analysis of gene flow for the New England cottontail, an imperiled habitat specialist in a fragmented landscape” in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

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