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New England Cottontails Could Hop into Endangerment

Baby New England cottontail rabbits at the captive breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island.
Baby New England cottontail rabbits at the captive breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. (Image credit: Lou Perrotti / Roger Williams Park Zoo)

The New England cottontail rabbit is in trouble, and conservationists are trying to prevent it from becoming endangered.

Believe it or not, this once-common rabbit — the species that served as the inspiration for "The Adventures of Peter Cottontail" — is only found in five spots throughout New York and New England, according to a release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

These rabbits thrive in young forests and shrublands, habitats that were widespread just a century ago. As farmlands and rural areas have returned to forests, and been turned into suburbs and urban areas, however, the cottontails have seen their historic range shrink by 86 percent since the 1960s, the release noted.

Conservationists, scientists and private landowners are working together to restore habitat to the species, according to the release. If the rabbit were listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would require an urgent costly response from the government that could restrict land use and hunting, the Associated Press reported.

The New England cottontail is the only rabbit native to the area east of the Hudson River. In the past century, however, it's been outcompeted by the Eastern cottontail, which was introduced for hunting. The Eastern cottontail is slightly larger and has larger eyes, allowing it to better avoid predators, according to the AP story. It can also thrive in a wider variety of habitats, from backyards to forests.

The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island has been breeding the New England cottontail in captivity for several years, and has already released 38 young rabbits tagged with radio collars into restored habitats in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, according to the AP. The zoo expects to release 100 more rabbits later this year.

Email Douglas Main or follow him @Douglas_Main. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook or Google+. Original article on LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.