Rabbits And Hares Of North America
North America is home to 15 species of rabbits and hares. All of these are rather abundant within their range. These medium-sized herbivores are important sources of food for many species of predatory birds and mammals, and they are also commonly hunted by people.
The most familiar native rabbit in much of North America is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), a relatively small species that typically weighs about 2.4-3.3 lb (1.1-1.5 kg), with females being slightly larger than males. The common name of this rabbit comes from its tail, which is white underneath and is held erect when running. The eastern cottontail is common in shrubby thickets in the vicinity of forest, orchards, and meadows. This rabbit is abundant across southeastern North America, extending into Mexico. The eastern cottontail has significantly expanded its range during the past century, probably because of improved habitat that has resulted from various human influences, especially the conversion of closed forests into certain types of agricultural and forestry ecosystems.
The cottontail rabbit is active all year, eating foliage of a wide range of plants when available, and buds and twigs of woody plants during the winter. Cottontails begin to mate during the winter, and the females (does) bear their first litters of two to seven young in the springtime, and may have three or more litters per year. This sort of explosive reproductive potential is typical of rabbits and hares, and it is not surprising that so many predators depend on these fertile animals as food.
Other common rabbits of North America include the mountain cottontail (S. nuttalli) of mountainous regions of the west, the desert cottontail (S. auduboni) of arid regions of the southwest, the brush rabbit (S. bachmani) of Oregon and California, and the swamp and marsh rabbits (S. aquaticus and S. palustris, respectively) of wet habitats in the southeast. The latter two species take readily to the water and swim well. All of these rabbits are abundant, and are hunted over much of their range.
The most widespread hare in North America is the snowshoe or varying hare (Lepus americana), which occurs from the low-arctic tundra, through much of the northern United States. This species is dark brown during the summer, but is a camouflaged white in winter. This species goes through more-or-less cyclic variations of abundance in northern parts of its range, which are tracked by the populations of some of its predators, such as lynx (Lynx rufus).
The arctic hare (L. arcticus) occurs throughout the northern tundra regions of North America, extending as far as the limits of land on the northern islands of Canada and Greenland. The white-tail jackrabbit (L. townsendii) occurs in semi-desert and dry prairies of central-western North America, while the black-tail jackrabbit (L. californicus) is more southwestern in its distribution. The European hare (L. europaeus) has been introduced to parts of the eastern United States and Canada, and is the largest lagomorph in North America, weighing as much as 10 lb (4.5 kg).
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