On our recent trip out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, one lovely Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) ventured across our path, nibbling on some greenery and twigs and seeming pretty unconcerned about our presence.
Some are surprised to learn that the most commonly seen rabbit in these parts (California's Great Central Valley) is the Desert Cottontail. I remind them that our valley is technically not that far removed from a desert... and that this lagomorph is pretty adaptable, ranging from North Dakota and Montana south to Texas and Mexico, and west to California. (It is absent from the Sierra Nevada, Cascade and northern Coast ranges, as well as Oregon, Washington and Idaho.) Their preferred habitat is varied, but predominately consists of dry lowlands (below about 6,000 feet) including grasslands, brushy areas and pinyon-juniper woodlands as well as deserts.
Desert Cottontails are larger than the similar Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) and can easily be distinguished by the bright white cotton ball-like tail and black ear-tips.
This particular Cottontail looks as if he had a narrow escape from the jaws of a predator at some point in his life, judging by the gouge in his ear. Generally abundant and widespread, rabbits and hares of all species play a vital role in many ecosystems across the globe. They are known as primary consumers, herbivores that eat plant matter and in turn are eaten by secondary consumers, the predators of the food web.