Helping a vulnerable rabbit species hop along with non-invasive genetic sampling

Bauer ML, Ferry B, Holman H, Kovach AI. 2020. Monitoring a New England Cottontail Reintroduction with Noninvasive Genetic Sampling. Wildl Soc Bull. 44(1):110–121. doi:10.1002/wsb.1069.

Featured image by the Department of the Interior, Wikimedia commons

Genetics, you are my only hop

The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) was once extremely common in the Northeastern United States. Yet, today scientists estimate there are only 13,000 New England cottontails left. Dramatic population loss is believed to be due to the loss of important shrubland habitat. The rabbit needs thick dense vegetation to find food, raise their young, escape from predators, and to survive harsh winters. New England cottontails are the only rabbit native to the United States east of the Hudson. Conservation efforts are ongoing to help restore this species. One tool that has aided conservation efforts has been the use of non-invasive genetic sampling to monitor reintroduction efforts, population size, and genetic diversity.


New England cottontail (Silvylagus transitionalis),
 Photo by M. Poole, USFWS

Over the last few decades, scientists at the Kovach Lab at the University of New Hampshire have used fecal pellets to monitor the population genetics of New England cottontails. A recent study led by Mellissa Bauer and colleagues demonstrates how the use of non-invasive genetics can help aid conservation efforts. Specifically, they use fecal pellets to monitor the genetics of populations of New England cottontails where rabbits have been reintroduced in efforts to increase wild populations. The use of fecal pellets means that rabbits do not have to endure stressful capture and handling to collect DNA samples, instead, scientists can collect the perfectly good DNA they already leave behind! Fecal pellets are then taken to the lab at the University of New Hampshire and the rabbit DNA is amplified from their feces. This DNA information was used to characterize population genetics at the Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area from 2004 to 2018. This can help conservation practitioners know whether their reintroduction efforts resulted in stable and breeding populations which greatly improves conservation efforts by providing clear results from reintroductions.

“Eh, what’s up with my genetics, doc?”

Mellissa Bauer and her colleagues found loss of genetic diversity following rabbit mortality in 2016 due to a 6 inch (15.2 cm) snowfall. Similar trends in mortality were also documented following the winter of 2015 where an accumulation of more than 12 inches (>30.5 cm) of snow occurred and in 2018 after an accumulation of 11 inches (27.9 cm) of snow. Furthermore, genetic analyses confirmed the breeding of reintroduced rabbits and showed that following 3 breeding seasons, the genetic diversity in the BRW Management Area surpassed the genetic diversity of nearby a wild population in Londonderry, NH. By using non-invasive genetic sampling, this research is able to monitor reintroduction efforts and make concrete suggestions to support the species recovery efforts.

Hop along to the rescue New England cottontails

You can help conserve species wherever you live by becoming an advocate of the conservation of important habitats. Furthermore, if you are a landowner consider planting native plants that will benefit local fauna. For folks living in New England, consider planting native shrubs and keep a lookout for opportunities to join conservation efforts or to volunteer here.

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Kevin Aviles Rodriguez

I am in the process of completing my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I am interested in human environmental changes as natural experiments to test hypothesis about the evolution of animals. Specifically, I study small lizards known as anoles and how living near human households impacts their ecology and behavior. I love fieldwork because often it takes me away from the cold and towards the sunny beachy islands that I love the most.

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