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Marsh Rabbit

Sylvilagus palustris

The marsh rabbit has reddish or dark brown fur. (Andrea Westmoreland/Flickr)
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The marsh rabbit has reddish or dark brown fur. (Andrea Westmoreland/Flickr)

The marsh rabbit is a brownish, medium-sized rabbit. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it is only found in the marshes and swamps of southeastern Virginia.

Appearance:

Marsh rabbits have reddish brown or dark brown fur and dark bellies. Their small, grayish tails are dark underneath. They have short, rounded ears. Their feet are small, with long toenails on the hind feet. Marsh rabbits grow 14 to 16 inches in length.

Habitat:

Lives in quiet, isolated swamps and marshes. Prefers freshwater marshes, but can also live in salt and brackish marshes. Semi-aquatic, spending time both on the land and in the water. Usually lives alone and is nocturnal.

Range:

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, found only in southeastern Virginia, south of the James River.

Feeding:

Marsh rabbits feed on aquatic plants such as cattails, duck potato, water hyacinth and marsh grasses. They can also eat woody plants such as blackberry, greenbrier and tree bark.

Predators:

Great-horned owls and marsh hawks are the two main predators of marsh rabbits, but other raptors such as bald eagles may prey upon them as well. Young are often eaten by rattlesnakes and water moccasins.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Breeding occurs several times between February and September. Females may produce four litters of 2 to 4 young each year. Nests are built of fur and grass within sedges at the edge of the water. Gestation lasts 30 to 37 days. Young are born blind and helpless; their eyes open in about 4 to 5 days. The female cares for her young until they are weaned, which takes about 12 to 15 days. Young often reach sexual maturity before age one. Marsh rabbits can live up to four years, but most do not live past one year.

Other Facts:

  • The only mammal in the Bay region that is restricted to marshes and swamps
  • An excellent swimmer that will often dive underwater to escape from predators
  • Can be confused with the eastern cottontail. You can distinguish a marsh rabbit by its smaller head, ears and feet and its small gray tail that is dark underneath. Also, marsh rabbits are only found in marshes and swamps in southeastern Virginia, while eastern cottontails are extremely common throughout the Bay watershed.

Sources and Additional Information:

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