DURHAM, N.H. — DNA analysis of the endangered New England cottontail shows that power line rights of way, railroad beds and roadsides may help support their diminishing habitat.
The small brown rabbit has been declining in the region for decades. It depends on tangled, low-growing shrubs in younger forests to survive. Once large trees take their place, the rabbit’s habitat is destroyed. Habitats also have been lost to land development.
Scientists are trying to come up with ways to restore habitat and create new areas for the rabbits. Research at the University of New Hampshire indicates that landscapes with such features as power lines and underpasses and culverts that have scrub habitat may attract the animals and help their movement.
“Major highways and a river were found to limit cottontail dispersal and to separate populations,” a recent article by University of New Hampshire researchers said. “The habitat along roadsides, railroad beds, and utility corridors, on the other hand, was found to facilitate cottontail movement among patches.”
The researchers used genetics to study the changes in the New England cottontail populations and their movement patterns. They obtained their DNA by collecting fecal pellets of 157 cottontails in southern Maine and the New Hampshire Seacoast from 2007 to 2009.
The researchers identified four major genetic clusters of the cottontails. A major power line from Portland International Jetport to the Kittery, Maine, area connected some of the populations in the recent past, a finding that underscores the importance of restoring suitable habitat to reconnect the populations.
“If we can restore more of this habitat in our landscape and work on creating a landscape that has a mosaic of different habitats, including mature forests and young forests, we know that it is going to help a lot of species,” said Adrienne Kovach, associate professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire.
The population of the cottontails is now concentrated in five separate areas, including southern New Hampshire and along the New Hampshire and Maine coasts. Other current habitats are in southeastern Massachusetts and along Connecticut’s borders with New York and Rhode Island.
All six states are working to create additional habitat, but only New Hampshire and Maine feature the rabbit on their state lists of endangered species. The rabbit is extinct in Vermont.