Research Underway on an Elusive Mountain Rabbit that may be Impacted by a Deadly Disease

Last Updated on March 17, 2024 2:49 pm

It’s rare to spot an Appalachian cottontail rabbit in the wild. They live in the high elevations and steep topography of the western North Carolina mountains and are easily confused with their slightly larger close cousin, the Eastern cottontail rabbit. They’re also:

  • listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as
    • a species of concern,
    • classified as vulnerable throughout most of its range, and
  • listed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) as
    • a rare species,
    • a species of greatest conservation need (a classification used in states' Wildlife Action Plans), and
    • a knowledge gap species – meaning we don’t know much about this elusive rabbit.

And it’s currently unknown whether a highly infectious and fast-spreading virus (RHDV2) may  be impacting the population.

That’s why NCWRC has recently contracted with the research group, Tangled Bank Conservation, to perform a study of Appalachian cottontails. The goal is to determine impacts to this species that may pose threats to their survival. NCWRC will use this information to develop a management plan to protect them.

Researchers will conduct scat surveys (animal waste) to learn where the species exists in the North Carolina mountains and where it coexists with Eastern cottontails. Eastern cottontails may impact Appalachian cottontails through direct competition, hybridization, and disease transmission.

“At this time, we have no evidence of RHDV2 here in North Carolina, based on our current monitoring efforts,” said Andrea Shipley, NCWRC’s mammalogist. “However, we believe habitat loss and habitat fragmentation have most significantly impacted this species and could leave them vulnerable to becoming sick.”

Appalachian cottontails use the thick cover of spruce fir forests for protection from predators. The state has seen a reduction in those trees due to disease and introduced insect pests. There are only patches of their preferred habitat remaining. This forest fragmentation creates isolated populations with low genetic diversity and less resiliency to a disease such as RHDV2.

“We are concerned about this rabbit species’ long-term survival because it’s dependent on a forest type that is declining, and small, isolated populations are vulnerable to quickly spreading diseases such as RHDV2, which is why we deem this study to be ‘time sensitive,’” said Sara Schweitzer, Ph.D., assistant chief of the NCWRC Wildlife Management Division’s Wildlife Diversity Program.

“The results from this survey will help us create management recommendations to conserve Appalachian cottontails, prevent hybridization between Eastern and Appalachian cottontails, and reduce the risk of RHDV2 entering Appalachian cottontail populations.”

The project is enhanced through public support. “With much of North Carolina's land in private ownership, we are encouraged by the engagement of several private landowners in the surveys as well as their concern for the species,” said Schweizer.

Those who visit N.C.’s high western elevations may want to keep a keen eye along the grassy roadsides and the edges of woodland openings for a chance to spot the rare Appalachian cottontail.

Learn more about the Appalachian Cottontail.

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