Thriving in the swamp- Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)

While on a boardwalk in Okefenokee National wildlife refuge, which is in South Georgia, my friend and I heard chewing noises. After waiting patiently, a tiny rabbit with short ears and small paws appeared out of the bush! It was a marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). Marsh rabbits are a species of rabbits that are adapted to live in wetlands. There is also a species called swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus), but they the largest species of rabbit in the Southeast and weight between 4 and 6.5 pounds. The ranges of the two species do not entirely overlap which is how I figured out I had seen a marsh rabbit and not a swamp rabbit. You can see marsh rabbits in southeast Virginia, southern Georgia, eastern Alabama, and the Florida peninsula. The largest population is found in the Dismal Swamp. There is a subspecies, Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), which is found in south Florida. The subspecies has darker fur and has a different sized skull than the regular marsh rabbit. The subspecies is considered by IUCN to be critically endangered and is federally listed as endangered. Most of these rabbits can be found on Big Pine and Boca Chica keys. Because of its conservation status, there is more information available about the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.


Marsh Rabbit. Captured by Lauren Schramm. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge


Marsh rabbits are common prey animals, and in fact form the base of the ecosystems in which they live. The rabbit is considered semiaquatic as they jump into the water to avoid predation. They also are nocturnal help them hide from predators. In areas in which the red wolf has been reintroduced the majority of its diet is marsh rabbits. In the wild marsh rabbits can live up to 4 years or up to 8 years in captivity but as they are common prey items, they often live only 1 year. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) and water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) often hunt juvenile rabbits. But hawks and great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus) have the biggest impact on population sizes. The rabbits have adapted to be r-selected species as a result of this. Females are sexually mature at 219 days. Mating induces ovulation. Females have been 2 to 5 offspring. The gestation period is 28 to 37 days. Within 12 to 15 days of being born the offspring are independent. They breed between February and September; meaning females can have up to 4 litters in the breeding season and produce up to 20 offspring.  However, nests are vulnerable to predation and flooding. The Lower Keys marsh rabbit breeds year-round due to the warmer temperatures of Southern Florida.


Lower keys marsh rabbit


The rabbits can thrive in brackish water which is one of the harshest environments for organisms to live in. However, because they are found in wetlands, they have not been found above 152 meters above sea-level. In order to cope with the damp environment, they lie the areas in which they sleep with rabbit fur. They are also rarely, found in groups except in areas with large amounts of resources. Resources including sites for sleeping and nesting as well as plants they need. Marsh rabbits have been documented eating a wide variety of plants and will even consume bark in harsh winters. In Southern Florida, the species will eat sugarcane and therefore farmers consider them agricultural pests. Females are territorial during the breeding season and will leap and charge at another female rabbit. At all time same-sex home ranges rarely overlap. Males have bigger home ranges than females, and juveniles have the biggest home ranges of all marsh rabbits. Habitat fragmentation has reduced the breeding ability of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit and resulted in the species becoming endangered.




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