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The most common breeds of rabbit found in the United States are the cottontails, rabbits of the Sylvilagus genus. This genus contains 16 different cottontail species divided among three subgeneri, and one, the San Jose brush rabbit, that is not classified in a subgenus. Ubiquitous throughout the genus, from desert varieties to species that inhabit the swamp, is the white fluffy tail that lifts when the rabbit runs or is alarmed.
One species, the western brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani), makes up the subgenus Microlagus. Found primarily on the West Coast, from the Columbia River in Oregon to the southernmost tip of California, the brush rabbit is significantly smaller than her other cottontail cousins. Adult brush rabbits weigh less than 2 pounds, and are under a foot in length. The brush rabbit's diet is mainly comprised of clovers and grasses, although she will also consume berries in late summer months.
The largest subgenus of cottontail is the subgenus Sylvilagus; it hosts nine cottontail species, including the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), the Tres Marias rabbit (Sylvilagus graysoni) and the most common rabbit in the whole of the United States: the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). The Eastern cottontail can be found throughout the midwest and eastern United States, most often in meadows, fields and open, grassy backyards. Sporting long, high ears and reddish-brown to grayish-brown fur, the Eastern cottontail is stocky in size, and can weigh up to a little over 4 pounds.
Six species make up the subgenus Tapeti, and two are common to America: the marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) and swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus). The marsh rabbit is a dark-brown cottontail with tiny ears and small legs, and can be found primarily on the Florida peninsula. Swamp rabbits and marsh rabbits both readily enter water, and will spend hours submerged in muddy water, with only their eyes and flattened ears protruding. Swamp rabbits are lighter in color, and similar to the Eastern cottontail in appearance. Both aquatic rabbits subsist on reeds, swamp vegetation, bulbs, rushes and marsh grasses.
Finding a Cottontail Rabbit
Cottontails prefer inhabiting the edges of open areas, making suburban backyards a haven. This adaptability and ease of integration with humans also puts their habitats and lives at risk from pet dogs and cats, gardening mishaps and moving vehicles. If you find a wild cottontail in your yard, leave it alone, even if it looks like an orphaned baby. Cottontails leave their nests at 3 weeks, and are capable of handling themselves in the wild. If you find an injured cottontail, call a local wildlife rehabilitator, or your local vet.
- Buckness University: Wilson & Reeder's Mammal Species of the World, Third Edition: Genus Sylvilagus
- Texas Tech Natural Science and Research Laboratory: Swamp Rabbit
- Distribution of the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus Floridanus); Fabrizio Silvano et al. [PDF]
- National Geographic: Cottontail Rabbit
- Humane Society of the United States: What to Do About Wild Rabbits
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images