The Marsh rabbit is a small cottontail rabbit found in Eastern and Southern United States. It is a strong swimmer and found only near regions of water. The Marsh rabbit has blackish-brown or dark reddish fur. The belly is a dingy brownish-gray in most but can also have a dull white appearance in mainland rabbits. The leading edges of the ears display small black tufts with ochre on the inside. The black portions of the upper parts often change to a dull grayish buff in spring and summer months, returning to a reddish or ochre color in fall, followed by darker black in the winter. Rabbits of peninsular Florida are typically darker and redder in color with a cinnamon-rufous nape, feet, and legs. Juveniles are much darker and duller in color than adults.
Marsh rabbits occur from the Dismal Swamp, Virginia, along the eastern coast to northern sections of Florida and through the Gulf Coast into Mobile Bay, Alabama. They inhabit brackish and freshwater marshes, mainly of cattails and cypress. In southern Florida, they occupy sandy islands and mangrove swamps. Marsh rabbits are strictly limited to regions with ready access to water, unlike most rabbits. They often enter tidal marshes but remain near the high ground for protection. Their hiding spots are usually located in dense thickets of magnolia, black-gum, sweet-gum, briers, and cattails.
Marsh rabbits are solitary and most active nocturnally; they spend most of the daylight hours resting in hidden areas such as dense thickets, hollow logs, and stands of cattails and grasses. They may also use the abandoned burrows of other animals. Marsh rabbits frequently make runway trails in dense vegetation along marsh edges; these trails can be identified easily as the rabbits mark active runways with fecal pellets. Marsh rabbits are more aquatic than Swamp rabbits as they are not known to inhabit forests. They take to water readily and are excellent swimmers. When not hiding in dense thickets, the rabbits will stay submerged in muddy water with only their eyes and noses exposed and ears laid back flat. If they have been spotted, they will readily take to the water and swim quickly to a new hiding spot or floating vegetation. Because Marsh rabbits possess very short hind legs, they typically rely on doubling and turning when running to evade predators. This often leads to easy capture by dogs. When flushed out of hiding spots, they may squeal as they escape.
Marsh rabbits are strictly herbivorous (folivorous) animals. They feed on leaves and bulbs of marsh plants including cattails, brushes, and grasses. They can also eat other aquatic or marsh plants such as centella, greenbrier vine, marsh pennywort, water hyacinth, wild potato, and amaryllis.
Marsh rabbits are polygynandrous (promiscuous) and both the males and females have multiple partners. The breeding season occurs year-round and after the gestation period of 30-37 days, females produce 2 to 4 young. Adult females are able to produce up to 6 litters per year with an average annual production of 15 to 20 young. Marsh rabbits give birth and raise their young in nests built from rushes, grasses, and leaves. The nests are well-covered and lined with hair from the adult rabbits. They are often found in dense thickets or swampy places completely surrounded by water for protection. The young are born blind and helpless. Their eyes open in 4-5 days and they are weaned between 12 and 15 days of age. At this time they are independent and able to forage for themselves. Young Marsh rabbits usually reach reproductive maturity before age one.
The main threat to Marsh rabbits is habitat loss mainly due to human development and fragmentation. They also suffer from hurricanes and coastal flooding, particularly young individuals. In regions of the South, Marsh rabbits are regularly hunted by burning large patches of dried grass to flush them out. In some states, they are considered a game animal and in Florida, they are considered agricultural pests of sugar cane fields.
According to IUCN, the Marsh rabbit is locally common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
Marsh rabbits are important herbivores in their ecosystem and influence plant communities keeping them grow healthy. They are also an important prey item for local predators such as owls, hawks, eagles, snakes, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.