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Splitting hares and rabbits

Lynne and Jim Weber, Nature Watch

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Jackrabbits, such as this one spotted at Big Bend National Park, can run up to speeds of 45 miles per hour. Their jointed skulls - unique among mammals - help to absorb the G-force created as the hare strikes its powerful hind legs with impact against the ground.

Colloquially known as "bunnies," rabbits and hares are small mammals that can be found in a variety of habitats, including meadows, woodlands, grasslands, deserts and even wetlands. But did you know that there are differences between rabbits and hares?

Rabbits are clearly distinguished from hares in that rabbits typically have young that are born blind and hairless (altricial), and hares have young that are born with hair and able to see (precocial). Because young hares are well camouflaged and mobile within minutes of being born, the mother does not protect them and is with them only long enough to nurse. Rabbits, other than cottontails, live underground in burrows, but cottontails, like hares, live in simple grass nests above the ground called "forms."

Unlike rabbits, hares usually do not live in groups (although a group of hares is called a "drove" and they are generally larger than rabbits, with longer ears and black markings on their fur. Hares are also called jackrabbits, as they are very quick and can run up to speeds of 45 miles per hour. They have jointed or kinetic skulls, which are unique among mammals. This joint permits relative motion between the anterior and posterior part of the skull's braincase, helping to absorb the G-force created as the hare strikes its powerful hind legs with impact against the ground.

In our area of Texas you can find the Swamp Rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus), the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and the Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus calfornicus). Living in the eastern third of our state and one of the largest cottontails in its range, the Swamp Rabbit inhabits poorly drained river bottoms and marshes. Its upper parts are grayish-brown, heavily lined with black with a white underside and cinnamon-colored front legs and tops of hind feet. At home in the water, this rabbit has dense fur that helps to waterproof its skin, and unlike other rabbits, it will cross streams and rivers on its own. Also unlike other rabbits, its young have fur at birth but their eyes and ears are closed.

Eastern Cottontails are the most common rabbit in the eastern three-fourths of Texas and are moderately large with rusty-brown fur, relatively short ears and large hind feet. These cottontails commonly frequent brush-dotted pastures and are active largely in the twilight hours and at night, when they venture out to meadows or lawns to forage.

They often live at the edges of town and feed in gardens and flowerbeds, and are common along country roads lined with dense vegetation. Eastern Cottontails are prolific breeders, and can have as many as four or five litters throughout the year.

The Black-tailed Jackrabbit, also known as the Desert Hare, reaches a length of about 2 feet and weighs from 3 to 6 pounds. Its distinctive long ears and powerful rear legs distinguish it as a hare. With dorsal fur that is dark buff peppered with black and an underside of creamy white, its black markings are found on the tips of its ears and the top of its short tail. In warmer climates like ours, this jackrabbit breeds year round, and the average litter size is four, but it can range from two to seven depending on the food supply. Because it does not hibernate or migrate, it uses the same square half-mile to mile habitat of oak-juniper woodland as its territory.

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