Rare rabbit may be at risk in NC, and scientists are rushing to collect the poop

By | March 11, 2024

Research in North Carolina involving rabbit poop could help protect a vulnerable species in the state, conservationists say.

An “elusive” rabbit known as the Appalachian cottontail is facing several threats to its survival in North Carolina, ranging from interbreeding to disease, according to a March 8 news release from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. But scientists are trying to learn more about the species – namely through its feces – to try to protect it.

Not much is known about the Appalachian cottontail, one of three native rabbit species in North Carolina. It is found from northern Alabama to central Pennsylvania, including the western counties of North Carolina.

According to the commission, Appalachian cottontails are “easily confused” with the more common eastern cottontail in North Carolina. Despite being slightly smaller than eastern cottontails, Appalachian rabbits were not recognized as their own species until 1992, the committee said.

Both Appalachian and Eastern cottontails play similar roles in their respective ecosystems. They keep undergrowth at bay by eating it, and they serve as an important prey source for predators, committee mammal expert Andrea Shipley told McClatchy News in a telephone interview.

The two species have historically lived in separate habitats in North Carolina — with Appalachian cottontails preferring isolated spruce forests sometimes called “islands in the sky,” Shipley said.

“There’s a lot of moss and stuff, and there’s a lot of places for Appalachian cottontails to hide,” Shipley said. “They are typically elusive species, so normally they are quite difficult to see.”

Appalachian Cottontails are considered game in North Carolina, although they are rarely hunted because of the terrain they live in, North Carolina wildlife officials said.  Andrea Joy Shipley/North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Appalachian Cottontails are considered game in North Carolina, although they are rarely hunted because of the terrain they live in, North Carolina wildlife officials said. Andrea Joy Shipley/North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

But in recent years, concerns about the crossbreeding of the two cottontail species – also called hybridization – have increased.

These concerns prompted an initial round of research by North Carolina scientists that was completed in 2020 to investigate the extent of cottontail hybridization, Shipley said. Researchers did indeed confirm crossbreeding between the two species, but they did not verify how “pervasive” the hybridization was or how long it had lasted, she said.

The leading theory behind what prompted the crossing is habitat loss, Shipley said. As more mountain spruce forests have been cleared to make room for development, Appalachian cottontails have lost a significant portion of their homes — and eastern cottontails, in turn, have gained greater access to those areas than ever before, said she. .

“In the past you could have said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s definitely not an Appalachian cottontail, because there are no Eastern cottontails here.’ But that is no longer the case,” Shipley said.

Development has become a “major problem” in North Carolina’s mountainous regions, so the commission has been working with developers to potentially create special areas where the species “can persist locally,” Shipley said.

Hybridization is not the only consequence of habitat loss. Diseases can also threaten the species.

One disease in particular — rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 — gave the committee “immediate concerns” about the future of Appalachian cottontails, Shipley said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the disease causes internal bleeding and sudden death.

RHDV2 was first discovered in the US in March 2020 and has spread to rabbit populations in about 14 states, the department said. But as of March 11, the virus has not been detected through sampling in North Carolina, Shipley said.

Because Appalachians live in highly isolated areas, their populations have less genetic diversity, making them “less resilient” to diseases like RHDV2, she said. The disease has spread mainly in Western states with more arid climates, so the committee isn’t sure what would happen in a high-altitude environment like that of the Appalachian cottontail if it were to move into the state, Shipley said .

With habitat lost, an eastern cottontail with the disease could interact with an Appalachian cottontail, endangering the entire population, Shipley said.

“I suspect it would have a pretty big impact, but you know, that’s just a guess,” she said.

With these risks in mind, state scientists are in the middle of their second wave of research on the species, with the goal of completing it in about two years, Shipley said. They are in the sampling phase, she said, which means researchers are collecting Appalachian cottontail feces.

Collecting feces helps collect DNA because animals shed skin cells when they defecate, Shipley said. By analyzing the poop in a laboratory, scientists can get a better idea of ​​the species’ genetic diversity and update their predictive maps of where cottontails are located in North Carolina.

Collecting data will help create a monitoring plan, which tracks factors such as genetic diversity and population over time, Shipley said. Then the committee will have more information about the enigmatic species to protect it, she said.

The new data will also help scientists assess whether to intervene and make any changes to the Appalachian Cottontails’ habitat, such as planting more spruce trees, Shipley said. It could also prompt certain conservation actions for the species, such as designating the Appalachian cottontail as a higher-risk species, she said.

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