The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris), is found in the coastal and marsh covered regions of the eastern and southern United States. It is sometimes called the marsh hare. This rabbit has three subspecies, and the range for them is small. The Carolina marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris palustris) inhabits mainland areas. The Florida marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris paludicola) inhabits the peninsula regions of Florida, but is not found along a northern area of the Miami coast. Only found in the Florida Keys, the Lower Keys marsh rabbit is an endangered species.
The marsh rabbit, inhabiting such damp areas, has been associated with the swamp rabbit although they are not the same. Research done on the DNA of both the marsh rabbit and the swamp rabbit show that they descended from a common ancestor, but are separate species. The marsh rabbit is only found near water, and it is skilled in swimming. They choose to make their homes near freshwater and brackish areas, typically those with cattails and cypress. Florida rabbits prefer sandy areas like the mangrove forests. Unlike most rabbits, they must have close access to water.
Small in size and similar to the eastern cottontail rabbit in appearance, the marsh rabbit has key differences from the eastern cottontail. The tail, legs, and ears are all smaller than that of the eastern cottontail rabbit. They are usually smaller than eastern cottontails, and marsh rabbits from the Florida peninsula have an average weight between 2.2 and 2.6 pounds. These rabbits can be as long as seventeen inches. Typically, mainland adult rabbits grow to be 17.5 inches in length, and have an average weight of 3.5 pounds. Compared with the hind feet of peninsular marsh rabbits, mainland marsh rabbits have larger feet with a length of up to 3.6 inches.
Depending on the location, the fur of the marsh rabbit can vary in color. Most have darker red or burnished black fur on the back, while the underside is a muted greyish brown. Some of the back fur may be edged with black, which can change to a dull grey during the warmer months of spring and summer. The belly of mainland rabbits can become faded white in color. The ears on marsh rabbits have small black tufts, with a buff color on the inside. Marsh rabbits inhabiting the peninsular regions of Florida usually have darker red fur tinged with brown on the nape, legs, and feet.
There are a few differences in marsh rabbits that make them easily distinguishable from swamp rabbits and eastern cottontails. The marsh rabbit’s tail is typically darker in color than the white tails of other cottontail rabbits, displaying a brownish grey in color. Some rabbits in Florida display melanism, the condition in which dark colored pigments in the skin develop too soon. The black fur of these rabbits does not change color with the seasons.
The diet of the marsh rabbit consists of plant material, and they are strictly herbivores. They are known to eat bulbs and leaves of marsh plants like rushes, grasses, and cattails, but they can also eat plants under water such as greenbriar vine, centella, water hyacinth, potato, amaryllis, and marsh pennywort. Marsh rabbits will also eat their own feces, a process known as coprophagy, in order to retrieve extra nutrients. This trait is shared with cottontail rabbits. Since rabbits lack the ability to ruminate, or regurgitate food matter to gain more nutrients, they will eat their own soft pellets known as cecal pellets. Due to the rabbit’s diet of plants, they are considered to be minor pests of crops that could be viable resources. In Florida, marsh rabbits are known pests of sugar cane fields.
The marsh rabbit is typically active at night, preferring to hide in hollow logs, groups of cattails, grasses, and dense thickets during the day. Abandoned burrows are also hiding places for these rabbits. Marsh rabbits will make trails through vegetation adjacent to marsh edges to travel, and they can recognize these trails easily by marking them with pellets. Marsh rabbits prefer to walk on all fours, unlike other rabbits, but are capable of hopping. Another oddity of marsh rabbits not found in other rabbits are the widely spread toe marks left from their tracks. Their gait has been measured at 3.5 to 6.5 inches between steps.
Because they do not inhabit forested areas, marsh rabbits take to water more easily than swamp rabbits. They are adept swimmers because their hind feet have less fur and longer claws than other cottontails. When the marsh rabbit is not hidden in dense vegetation, it will submerge itself in muddy water, leaving only its eyes and nose exposed. It will lay its ears flat on its head in order to hide as well. This allows them to escape quickly from predators such as the marsh hawks, snakes, alligators, great horned owls, and foxes. Dogs, however, easily capture them when they try to escape on land using a doubling method. They may squeak while fleeing danger.
The marsh rabbit can breed throughout the year, and litters typically contain two through four young. Female marsh rabbits will usually produce six litters in a year, with an average number of fifteen to twenty baby rabbits. Mother rabbits will build a nest out of grasses, rushes, leaves, and hair from adult rabbits. These nests are often surrounded by water in dense vegetation and thickets.
The conservation status of the marsh rabbit is of least concern, excluding the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, and they are hunted in many places. In some areas, hunters will burn grasses in order flush out the marsh rabbit and the swamp rabbit. Some states have listed the marsh rabbit as a game animal, so hunting is controlled by the Department of Natural Resources. In South Carolina, the marsh rabbit-hunting season is November 27 through March 2, and there is a limit of five rabbits bagged per day. The marsh rabbit is called a Pontoon in Georgia. Many areas of the eastern United States will serve muskrat meat, often labeled as marsh rabbit, and serve it stewed or fried.