Thanks to cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, and the bunnies we see in our backyards, rabbits are familiar to almost everyone. And yet I suspect most people think they are rodents. They are not. Rabbits and hares are lagomorphs, members of the mammalian order Lagomorpha.
The confusion is understandable. Both rodents and rabbits are herbivores, and their skulls are superficially similar. They each have a large gap between the incisors and molars, but a closer look at a lagomorph skull reveals two key differences.
First, lagomorphs have two pairs of upper incisors. A small peg-like pair sits behind the much more conspicuous front pair. Rodents have a single pair of incisors. Second, the cheek bones of rabbits form a mesh-like network of bone rather than a sold panel.
And if you've ever watched a rabbit eat, you may have noticed that its jaws move side to side. That's because their upper rows of teeth are spaced farther apart than the lower rows. This requires lateral jaw action to chew food.
In North America, the most widely distributed lagomorphs, including those in our backyards, are eastern cottontails.
Cottontails spend most of the day resting in a "form" -- a depression on the ground surrounded by dense vegetation. Contrary to popular belief, cottontails do not dig burrows. They occasionally seek refuge in abandoned groundhog burrows to escape predators or harsh weather, but they spend most of their time above ground.
Cottontails begin mating in February. Females give birth to their first litter after a pregnancy of 28 to 30 days. Prior to birthing, the female digs a shallow hole about the size of a clenched fist. She lines the nest with fur plucked from her belly and covers the hole with grass to camouflage it from above.
Four or five blind, naked young grow rapidly and leave the nest after 14 days. By the age of one month, the young are weaned and independent. Meanwhile, mom has been busy. She mates shortly after giving birth, so she's pregnant with a second brood while nursing the first. A single female can breed five or six times in a year and produce up to 35 babies. This is a major reason cottontails can withstand the annual toll taken by predators and hunters.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.