Sylvilagus palustris hefneri

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, Lower keys marsh rabbit

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Sylvilagus palustris hefneri

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, also known as the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, is an endangered subspecies of marsh rabbit named after Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Appearance

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri are small-to-medium-sized, 12.6 to 15.0 in (320 to 380 mm) in length and 2.20 to 3.08 pounds (1.0 to 1.4 kg) in weight. Their hind feet range from 2.6 to 3.1 inches (65 to 80 mm) and their ears range from 1.8 to 2.4 inches (45 to 62 mm) in length. S. p. hefneri is the smallest of the three marsh rabbit subspecies, the others being Sylvilagus palustris paludicola and Sylvilagus palustris palustris. These rabbits do not appear to be sexually dimorphic.

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The pelage of S. p. hefneri is short with dark brown fur and a greyish-white belly, and their tails are dark brown. S. p. hefneri is the smaller than the mainland marsh rabbit (S. p. palustris ) and Upper Keys marsh rabbits (S. p. paludicola ) and is distinguished by its dark fur. S. p. hefneri also differs from S. p. palustris and S. p. paludicola in several cranial characteristics. The Lower Keys marsh rabbit has a shorter molariform tooth row, higher and more convex frontonasal profile, broader cranium, and elongated dentary symphysis.

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Distribution

Geography

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri has been isolated to the Keys by the rise in sea level and human inhabitation to the local area. This isolation may be the cause for the speciation from the Upper Keys marsh rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris paludicola. Forys et al. determined the habitat occupied of S. p. hefneri to be 317 hectares (780 acres) in 1995 with 81 suitable habitats. In 1996, Forys refined the habitat to be about 253 hectares (630 acres). An average home range of 0.32 hectares (0.79 acres) was determined in 1999. This range includes a few of the larger Lower Keys, specifically, Boca Chica, Saddlebunch, Sugarloaf, and Big Pine Keys and the small islands near these Keys. From 2001 to 2005, Faulhaber et al. surveyed the predetermined habitat to establish a current habitat range. They determined the median size of occupied patches was 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres) with an interquartile range of 0.8–5.0 hectares (2.0–12.4 acres). This data is representative of 112 patches of occupied S. p. hefneri habitat (547.1 ha = 1,367 acres (5.53 km2) total). Please note this data represents an increased search area rather than an increased rabbit number. There was a net loss (—6) in patch occupancy between the 2001-2005 and 1988-1995 survey periods. Possible reasons attributing to this loss are stray cat predation, rise in sea level, and storm surges from hurricanes.

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Sylvilagus palustris hefneri is habitat specific choosing higher elevations within salt marsh or freshwater marsh but depend on herbaceous plants for food, cover and nesting. This vegetation includes species such as, sawgrass (Cladium jamiacense ), seashore dropseed (Sporobolus virginicus ), and cordgrass (Spartina spp. ). Lower Keys marsh rabbits prefer areas with high amounts of clump grass, ground cover, and Borrichia frutescens present, areas closer to other existing marsh rabbit populations, and areas close to large bodies of water.

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Habits and Lifestyle

Faulhaber et al. conducted a study in 2006 to survey the diurnal habits seen in S. p. hefneri to ultimately provide conservationists with appropriate parameters for habitat extension. They determined that when S. p. hefneri were in brackish wetlands they typically clustered together in patches of saltmarsh or buttonwoods. And when in freshwater wetlands they typically clustered together in patches of freshwater hardwoods.

Diet and Nutrition

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri is diet specific choosing particular vegetation; however foraging strategies are not affected by sex or seasonality. The major vegetative species found in the Keys include grasses (Monanthochloe littoralis, Fimbristylis castanea ); succulent herbs (Borrichia frutescens, Batis maritima, Salicornia virginica ); sedges (Cyperus spp.); and sparse tree cover (Conocarpus erectus and Pithecellobium guadalupense ). S. p. hefneri will eat a variety of these species but they prefer Borrichia frutescens, which is common in the mid-saltmarsh area. The marsh rabbit spends most of its time feeding in the mid- and high- marsh areas.

Mating Habits

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri produce fewer offspring, at an average of 3.7 litters per year, compared to other marsh rabbits at 5.7 litters per year. Sexual maturity in S. p. hefneri begins at about nine months of age. Researchers have found that the majority of males disperse at this time, yet females remain in their home range. S. p. hefneri are polygamous and do not display an apparent seasonal breeding pattern.

Population

Population threats

Sylvilagus palustris hefneri is considered an endangered species and is threatened by many different sources such as habitat alteration, contaminants, vehicular traffic, dumping, poaching, free-roaming domestic cats and dogs, feral hogs, fire ants, sea level rise and exotic vegetation. (14) More than half the area of suitable S. p. hefneri habitat has been destroyed for construction of residential housing, commercial facilities, utility lines, roads, or other infrastructure in the Lower Keys. Most of the remaining suitable habitat has been degraded by exotic invasive plants, repeated mowing, dumping of trash, and off-road vehicle use.

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Invasive species such as the Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus ), Boa constrictor, ball pythons (Python regius ), and reticulated pythons (P. reticulatus ) are new threats to S. p. hefneri. However, the greatest current exotic predator threat to S. p. hefneri is feral and free-roaming cats.

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Conservation

Many biologists and such have taken a close look at S. p. hefneri to determine and implement current conservation efforts. Action is currently underway at the species level and the habitat level. The most prominent method of conservation of S. p. hefneri is reintroducing the rabbits to unoccupied but potentially suitable patches Faulhaber et al. created a plan to restore or enhance key macro- and microhabitat more effectively by preventing harmful intrusion by humans, connecting isolated habitat patches, and mitigating barriers to rabbit movement. LaFever et al. demonstrate the use of population viability analysis as a conservation planning tool for reducing human wildlife conflicts. Crouse et al. conducted a genetic analysis comparing haplotypes in mitochondrial DNA to identify barriers in gene flow.

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Other possible methods into habitat conservation are:

  • Protection of important wildlife corridors
    • Several marsh rabbit populations are linked by corridors of low marsh and mangroves. Protection of these areas will aid in avoiding negative impact on the rabbit.
  • Removal of invasive exotic vegetation
    • Invasive species kill undergrowth, destroying the rabbit's food, shelter and nesting sites, their removal is necessary to restoring habitat
  • Fencing or barricading areas of off-road vehicle (ORV) use and/or dumping
  • Improving habitat by planting or encouraging native plant species
  • Monitor the status of S. p. hefneri, examine ecological processes, and increase public awareness of S. p. hefneri habitat and instill stewardship.

Species-level conservation action is as follows:

  • Investigate components of both occupied and unoccupied marsh rabbit habitat and determine why rabbits are present or absent
  • Maintain and improve the GIS database for S. p. hefneri information
  • Conduct S. p. hefneri reintroductions from natural wild populations
  • Utilize federal regulatory mechanisms for protection
    • Federal activities may cause jeopardy for the total population
  • Control or eliminate free-roaming cat populations near rabbit habitat
    • Free-roaming cats are a major threat to rabbit survival, establishing a program throughout the Lower Keys to control free roaming cats can increase their survival and colonization of restored habitats
  • Minimize road mortality by implementing slower speed zones and increase enforcement of existing zones, and by controlling poaching.

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References

1. Sylvilagus palustris hefneri Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvilagus_palustris_hefneri

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