Conejos y Liebres

By Julie Etra

Where we live, in Reno, Nevada, we consider rabbits a nuisance. (Nevada, by the way, means snow-covered, and the Sierra Nevada are snow-covered mountains – certainly so in December 2022). Rabbits eat a lot of grass and they reproduce rapidly and frequently. They deposit concentrated calcium from their urine and solid waste right where they forage, further stressing the grasses on which they continue to graze. On the other hand, rabbits are essential food for predators such as coyotes and birds of prey.

In Huatulco, we live in Residenciales Conejos, the subdivision with a symbol of a rabbit at the entrance, located on the Bahia de Conejos. So, I said to myself when we bought the lot, hmmm, bunnies. After 13 years in Res. Conejos, we do see an occasional bunny and/or their sign (pellets), but no hares (liebre, in Spanish) and our small patch of grass is not suffering from their presence.

What makes a rabbit a rabbit? First, they are mammals. In general, they have long ears (this varies considerably), a short tail, long hind legs, and continuously growing sharp incisors. Most species are gray or brown and range in size from 10 to 18 inches (25 to 45 cm) long and weigh 1 to 4 pounds (0.5 to 2 kg). They feed primarily on grasses.

There are four species of rabbits and one hare (a type of jackrabbit) found in the selva seca, or dry jungle, of Mexico (see Julie Etra’s article on the selva seca in Huatulco in the December 2022 issue of The Eye). Two of the rabbits are endemic, one of these is threatened and endangered, and the hare (Lepus flavigularis) is considered very rare.

Rabbits in the Jungle

The bunnies or cottontails found in the selva seca include the common tapeti cottontail (Sylvilagus brasiliensis), also called the Brazilian cottontail or forest cottontail. It is a small- to medium-sized bunny, with an expansive range from Tamaulipas to southern Mexico, through Central America, and as far as central Brazil. It has a small, dark tail, short hind feet and short ears. The tapeti cottontail is nocturnal and solitary

The Mexican cottontail (Sylvilagus cunicularius) is endemic to Mexico and the selva seca. This is the dude or dudette(s) (macho y hembra) we would be lucky to see in Huatulco. It is the largest of the Mexican rabbits. Preferred habitats include temperate, subtropical or tropical dry forests, and pastureland. It is a common bunny and is found from Sinaloa south to the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca. It breeds year-round, but particularly in the wet season when there is more quality forage available. Although this bunny is pretty common, it still faces the threats typical for rabbits (and other wildlife), including loss of habitat through land use conversion (grazing, agriculture, urban development), hunting, and predation.

The eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, is the most common cottontail in North America. Interestingly, it’s not the cottontail that forages on our meadow and lawn in northern Nevada – that’s the mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii). The eastern cottontail has a short lifespan due to high rates of predation by numerous predators, rarely living past the age of two. It issues a creepy scream when injured (as does the mountain cottontail).

Sylvilagus graysoni is endemic to Mexico and is in danger of extinction. Its common name is the Tres Marías cottontail, as it is endemic to the Tres Marías Islands off the coast of Nayarit, where it was previously abundant. It is not found along the selva seca of Oaxaca or other dry tropical forests in Mexico. Given its limited range and occurrence, it only has three known wildlife predators: the Tres Marías racoon (Procyon lotor insularis), a subspecies of the common racoon, and two birds of prey, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and the crested caracara (Caracara plancus), the latter being common on our coast. The Tres Marías cottontail is also threatened by hunting. Although not a lot is known about their behavior, given the remoteness of the Tres Marías Islands and the low number of predators, the rabbit is purportedly not wary of humans. As with other rabbits in similar habitats, its diet changes from herbaceous vegetation in the rainy season to sticks and bark in the dry months of winter.

The Hares of the Isthmus

Lepus flavigularis is endemic to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, more specifically the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and in fact the common name is the Tehuantepec or tropical jackrabbit. Historically it was found from Salina Cruz in Oaxaca to Tonalá just over the border in Chiapas, but has not been seen that far east in recent years. Currently there are four small populations, all located around the Upper and Lower Lagoons of the Gulf of Tehuantepec – Salina Cruz is the major population center on the Gulf.

This very large-eared (up to 5 in, or12 cm), slender-bodied hare is well adapted to its often arid and hot environment. The large surface area of its ears helps regulate its temperature; the size of the ears enhances its hearing and ability to detect predators. The hind feet are large and well developed, allowing for rapid escape from predators. In general, adults weigh from 7.7 to 8.8 pounds (3.5-4.5 kg), with a body that measures 22-24 inches long (55-60 cm) and a tail 2.5 to 3.5 inches (6.5- 9.5 cm) in length. This jackrabbit reaches sexual maturity at six or seven months and is polygamous; they typically reproduce during the rainy season when there is an abundance of forage. After around 32 days of gestation, the mother hare gives birth to one to four kits.

The Tehuantepec jackrabbit is crepuscular, meaning active at dusk, and nocturnal when the ambient temperature drops. Habitat and diet are grasslands, where they prefer to forage native rather than introduced grasses. Threats to this species are typical for many species of wildlife: habitat loss due to urban encroachment and agriculture; introduction of non-native species, particularly annual grasses; hunting; and predation by coyotes and foxes. For more detail check out the following link: https://www.lifeder.com/liebre-de-tehuantepec/.

Since their primary diet in the rainy season is grasses, why is Bugs Bunny always munching on a carrot? What’s up with that, doc?