Peter Rabbit's Transportation Problem

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A New England cottontail

New England cottontails are in trouble.

The rabbits are the only cottontail native to New England, as well as the portion of New York state east of the Hudson River. But over the last half century, their range has shrunk by 85 percent. They're believed to have disappeared entirely from Vermont, and are now found only in isolated pockets in New York, Connecticut, western Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

The rabbits require a special habitat — secondary forests, areas where woods have been cleared but are growing back, and the brush is thick and wild. As trees in those places mature, however, they develop leafy canopies that shade and kill off the brush below.

Before wide-scale development, the rabbits would just move on to the next suitable area. Now there are roads and cities in the way, and the rabbits are finding themselves trapped. Without the safety of brambles to hide in, the cottontails become easy pickings for predators. 

'First he ate some lettuces and some French beans; and then he ate some radishes.'

Now an initiative at the Queens Zoo is working to slow that decline. Last year they teamed up with the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative and began breeding the animals in captivity.

Last year, the zoo took in four females (does) and four male rabbits (bucks). The four pairs produced 11 viable young (kits) between them. This year they're hoping for even more kits, with eight does and eight bucks. The kits, once weaned, will be released back into secondary forests that have lost their New England cottontails.

Meanwhile other members of the initiative are working to reconnect the scattered pieces of habitat, so that the replenished population can once again roam freely and survive on their own.

The director of the Queens Zoo, Scott Silver, says the same factors causing the decline of New England cottontails are likely also behind the decline of many other secondary forest species, including the Karner blue butterfly, the bog turtle and the northern bobwhite quail.

"Every animal has its individual role in an ecosystem," he said. "We don't always know what those roles are, but we certainly don't want to find out later on that the role was essential, after it's too late."