Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are the most common rabbits living in North America. You can see cottontails from central to southern Canada, all of eastern United States to the Great Plains and parts of northwestern South America. European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) live on all continents other than Asia and the freezing climate of Antarctica. Cottontails and European rabbits differ in physical appearance, breeding, habitat and diet.
The most notable feature of the cottontail rabbit is the white, puffy underside of its tail. As the cottontail hops away, you can see its tail rise up to resemble a cotton ball. Eastern cottontail rabbits grow from 15 to 18 inches from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail and weigh 2 to 3 pounds. The multi-colored coat of the cottontail consists of tan, brown and black hairs with a white belly. Larger than cottontails, European rabbits grow about 15 to 20 inches from nose to tail and weigh 3.5 to 5.5 pounds. The fur coloring is very similar to the eastern cottontail, with brown, black and gray intermixed fur on the body and a light gray belly. The underside of the European rabbit’s tail is white but does not have the puffy, full tail of the cottontail rabbit.
Eastern cottontail rabbits begin breeding at 2 to 3 years old. Mating season runs from February to September. Although cottontails can produce up to seven litters every year, the average is about four. Most litters have five babies, known as kittens, which become independent after about a month. European rabbits reach sexual maturity at 8 months and can breed year-round, making them capable of producing litters every month. Litters usually have about six kittens, which also become independent in one month.
Living a solitary life at the edge of woodlands, in meadows or in orchards, the eastern cottontail hides in brush piles, thickets and under shrubs for protection. They do not dig burrows. Cottontail rabbits don't tolerate the company of other rabbits, acting aggressively toward them. Female European rabbits dig burrows in soft, sandy soil to form warrens that house up to 30 rabbits. The warrens are usually located in fields or woodlands.
Cottontails enjoy feasting on all types of grasses, especially wild rye and bluegrass. Other favorite foods are clover, dandelion leaves and wild strawberries. During winter months, cottontail rabbits survive by eating bark from birch, maple and dogwood trees, as well as acorn buds. Eating their own fecal pellets provides them with nutrients from beneficial bacteria. European rabbits prefer a slightly different menu from the cottontails, consisting of roots, bark, tubers, seeds and grains. They also eat grass, leaves, fruits and flowers. Like the cottontails, European rabbits ingest their own fecal pellets. Both the eastern cottontail rabbit and the European rabbit are agricultural pests because of the damage they cause when foraging in cultivated vegetable gardens.
Both the eastern cottontail rabbit and the European rabbit can live up to nine years in captivity, but in the wild both species rarely live past three years. Hawks, fox, coyotes, owls, dogs, hunters and traffic cause the early death of rabbits.
- Animal Diversity Web: Sylvilagus floridanus -- Eastern Cottontail
- Animal Diversity Web: Oryctolagus cuniculus -- European Rabbit
- Pennsylvania State University: The Virtual Trail at Penn State New Kensington Species Pages: Sylvilagus floridanus
- Cornell University: Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus)
- Encyclopedia of Life: Oryctolagus cuniculus
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images