Behavioral differences between successful and unsuccessful breeding pairs of New England cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis)

Hannah Petit


Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, New England cottontail (NEC) populations are declining in the wild. Currently, little is known about their breeding behaviors and what factors contribute to reproductive success. This lack of knowledge impacts the ability to effectively conserve this species. The purpose of this project is to determine behavioral differences between reproductively successful and unsuccessful pairs of NECs in a conservation breeding program. In this study, six pairs of NECs were monitored under 24-hour camera observation. Each rabbit pair was observed for about 48 hours before the females were moved to a different pen. Reproductively successful pairings had higher rates of approaches, follows, and charges. Additionally, this pair type had higher durations of state behaviors that required these animals to be near one another. This study suggests successful breeding pairs engaged with one another more and spend time nearby unlike unsuccessful pairs that fled from potential mates. The results demonstrate that there is behavioral variation amongst pair types. Through this study, the use of the behavioral mating strategy known as mate choice has been supported in NECs. However, the more selective sex and behaviors that are selected upon are still unknown. Future studies should focus on increasing pairs for larger sample sizes and the length of time rabbits are paired together. Along with mating strategies, this study provides insight into the continued decline of this species.