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Living Sanibel: Marsh rabbit

By Staff | Oct 18, 2017

Marsh rabbit. PHOTO PROVIDED

One of the most peculiar habits of the marsh rabbit is its tendency to let go with a strange, lizard-like squeal when startled. It is a bizarre sound coming from such an adorable little rabbit and when first encountered can readily surprise the unsuspecting naturalist.

Commonly seen eating grass and other vegetation along trails and roadways, the marsh rabbit is the bread and butter of many of Florida’s predators, especially bobcats, hawks, and owls. Although a member of the cottontail family, the marsh rabbit does not have a fluffy white tail. It has smaller ears than the cottontail and prefers wetter environments. The marsh rabbit will actually swim across tidal passes to inhabit other barrier islands. It ranges all the way north to Virginia and west to Alabama.

The marsh rabbit is a strict herbivore and eats a wide variety of vegetation. It is a game animal in Florida, as it is in most of its range. Because a subspecies, Sylvilagus palustris hefneri (named after Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame), located in the lower Florida Keys, is endangered, the marsh rabbit is not hunted south of the Everglades.

It would be easy to think that the marsh rabbit is also prone to roadkill, but in fact it is rare to see one hit by an automobile. Like the white-tailed deer, the marsh rabbit appears to be adapting to the automobile. Its primary cause of mortality is predation, including being taken by alligators when swimming.

Author’s Note: For anyone living or vacationing on Sanibel Island this summer, 2017, it is all but impossible not to make note of the fact that the current Marsh Rabbit population is at a peak. These population explosions, which run in various cycles, ultimately fall due to the increase of predators, which on Sanibel include bobcats and the recently arrived coyotes. After heavy predation the rabbit population will likely tumble, then, as a result of having fewer rabbits to prey upon, will soon thereafter cause the bobcat and coyote population to plummet, resulting in an increase in the rabbit population. Some believe this is a seven year cycle while others contend it is more of a 10 year cycle. Either way, Sanibel could currently by called “Bunny Island” which has a nice ring to it.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.