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3.17 Hares and rabbits

3.17.1 Sylvilagus floridanus (Eastern cottontail)

Hares and rabbits (the Order Lagomorpha, family Leporidae) are game animals the world around. In Latin America the peak diversity is achieved in Mexico, with its 4 species of hares (Lepus alleni, L. californicus, L. callotis and L. flavigularis). 5 species of Sylvilagus rabbits (S. audubonii, S. bachmani, S. brasiliensis, S. cunicularis and S. floridanus) and the volcano rabbit (Romerolague diazi) (253, 275, 285, 336). There are only two native species in the rest of Latin America. They are: Sylvilagus brasiliensis, found in wooded habitat and paramo areas from Tamaulipas, Mexico, to northern South America (Brazil and Paraguay), to northern Argentina. S. floridanus is found over much of the United States, Mexico, Central America, northern and central Colombia and Venezuela (91, 157, 169, 285). There are also abundant populations of introduced Leporidae in southern South America: Lepus capensis (= L. europaeus according to Honacki et al. (285) in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and Oryctolagus cuniculum, mainly in Chile, that are ruthlessly hunted and considered pests in many areas (63, 362, 473, Table 20).

The key native Leporidae species in Latin America is Sylvilagus floridanus, economically important and widely distributed in the northern part of the region, and better known than S. brasiliensis.

3.17.1 Sylvilagus floridanus (Eastern cottontail)

Vernacular names: Conejo, conejo de monte, conejo sabanero (general use).

Geographical variation and distribution: From southern Canada to Colombia and Venezuela with disjunct areas in Mexico and Central America. The cottontail varies considerably in colour and size and there are 7 recognized subspecies in Mexico and Central America and 7 in South America (157).

Elevational range: Cottontails are found from sea level and usually at low altitudes, but also up to 1 000 m in Colombia (272) and 3 000 m in Guatemala (258).

Size and weight: Size and weight vary by subspecies but the usual total adult length is 39-49 cm and the weight 1-2 kg. Cottontails do not exhibit real sexual dimorphism but the females tend to be a bit bigger and heavier (115, 238, 258, 290, 336, 434, 450).

Habitat: Cottontails are adapted to a wide variety of habitats from semi-desertic scrub and thornbush to the edge of the savannah to open deciduous forests, scrub forest, secondary stubble vegetation and cultivated areas. The peak abundance is apparently reached in fairly dry areas with discontinuous tree strata and a well-developed herb layer (17, 66, 259, 272, 336, 434, 450).

Abundance: Generally speaking, Cottontails are common or abundant. Eisenberg et al (174) estimated population densities at 10-35/km2 in a savannah and deciduous forest region of the Venezuelan Llanos, but they can be even more abundant in some semi-arid regions (379, 455, 502) - up to 500/km2 (385).

Behaviour: Cottontails are nocturnal, solitary, sedentary animals with home ranges of just a few hectares that broadly overlap: there may be a male dominance hierarchy among males sharing the same home range. If surprised during the daytime, rabbits will speedily hop away in an erratic pattern of flight (115, 336, 364, 379).

Feeding habits: Cottontails feed primarily on green vegetation in the herb layer. In a habitat comprised of thornbush, fallow land and vegetable cropland in northern Venezuela the main item observed in the diet was the green parts of the following families: Malvaceae, Amarantaceae, Mimosaceae, Graminae, Cactaceae and Verbenaceae, and the fruits of the Cactaceae, Mimosaceae and Portulacaceae (564).

Reproduction: Cottontails are sexually mature at about 3-5 months and breed year-round in Venezuela (and probably in other neotropical countries) with the main incidence of gestation and greatest testicular size during the rainy months (434, 450). Litter size is 1-5: the average litter size in Venezuela was 2.4-2.6 and tended to be smaller in primiparous females (290, 434, 450). The average gestation period in North America is 28 or 29 days. The neonate Cottontails are underdeveloped and remain in the nest, a hollow lined with straw and rabbit hair, for two weeks (68, 115).

Production for a female surviving to one year would be 22 young, but given the low adult survival, estimated at 0.63 per month for the Paraguaná population in northern Venezuela, the average production per female is probably 5.2 young/year (450).

Hunting: The most effective, and probably the most destructive method, is jacklighting at night with lanterns from vehicles on rural roads. A more sporting technique is to hunt cottontails by day with dogs, or to simply search for rabbits in the brush. In both cases the problem is to shoot at a rapidly-fleeing target: this requires a certain amount of skill. Campesinos hunt rabbits in some areas by setting nooses or traps along rabbit pathways, or use slingshots, or lure them by imitating their calls (66, 241, 258, 270, 379).

Products: The white and tasty meat of the rabbit, the only material product, is widely eaten by rural people in some semi-arid areas where the rabbit is the most abundant (and sometimes the only) game animal. Rabbit hunters sometimes hawk their kill along the road in certain regions. Daytime hunting of cottontails also has great recreational value. In Venezuela, for example, the cottontail is the prime target for sport hunters (237). The potential harvest in Venezuela is thought to be somewhere between 3.75 and 8 million (385).

Management: Cottontails are apt candidates for rational management due to their high reproductive capacity, adaptability to modified environments and attraction for sport hunters. Though cottontails are relatively abundant, some authors (238, 270, 379, 420) agree that there has been a marked drop in abundance in recent years which they attribute primarily to nocturnal hunting, sometimes for commercial purposes.

The essential priorities for cottontail management would be to reduce and perhaps eliminate nocturnal hunting (it is already expressly prohibited in most countries), encourage sport hunting with dogs, and time the hunting season so as to not coincide with peak reproduction (238, 434).

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