The eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is not native east of the Hudson River and was introduced by the hundreds of thousands to New England in the early 1900s as a game species. Today there are more eastern cottontails in New Hampshire than the native New England cottontail.
Despite being almost identical in appearance, there is a major difference between eastern cottontails and New England cottontails – their habitat requirements. New England cottontails are habitat specialists, requiring large areas of early-successional habitat to avoid predators and survive, and typically don’t venture far from these areas of thick shrubs and young trees. Eastern cottontails are able to venture farther from protective cover while remaining able to spot and evade predators. Biologists believe this is due to their slightly larger eyes and sharper vision, a trait which probably arose because eastern cottontails evolved in more-open grassland habitats, where detecting predators at a distance was necessary for survival. This makes them better able to survive in the human-dominated, fragmented habitats of New England, including open fields, forest edges, small thickets, and even golf courses and suburban lawns. If you spot a cottontail rabbit far from protective cover it is likely an eastern cottontail. Check out the Comparing Cottontails page for more information on how to distinguish between these two species of rabbits.
Unlike the New England cottontail, where comprehensive survey efforts have resulted in an understanding of the species’ current range New Hampshire, little is known about the distribution and relative abundance of eastern cottontails in the state. Volunteer help is needed to report rabbit sightings in order to inform areas where eastern cottontails are likely to be found.