Nature Lab

By Bonnie Chasteen | December 1, 2018
From Missouri Conservationist: December 2018

Each month, we highlight research MDC uses to improve fish, forest, and wildlife management.

Species of Conservation Concern

Swamp Rabbit Surveys

Unless you live in the Bootheel, you may not have heard of the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus). This cottontail cousin lives in bottomland hardwood forests, where it can dive into the swamp to escape predators. It is also a Missouri species of conservation concern, ranked imperiled in our state.

Former MDC Natural History Biologist Bruce Henry explained why. “Missouri is at the very northwestern edge of the rabbit’s range, so steep declines in bottomland hardwood forests in our state make it vulnerable to loss.”

Henry and other members of the multi-partner swamp rabbit working group use an unusual survey method to track the rabbits.

“We check their latrines,” he said. Swamp rabbits defecate atop logs and stumps, leaving easy-to-spot evidence of their presence. The working group keeps a database of nearly 300 latrine sites along major floodplains between St. Louis and Oregon counties.

In addition to surveying Missouri’s known latrine sites every 10 years, the group tracks the rabbit’s response to extreme disturbances, such as the Birds Point-New Madrid Levee breach in 2011.

“We surveyed all 65 sites in Mississippi and New Madrid counties from 2011 to 2016,” said Dr. John Scheibe, professor of biology at Southeast Missouri State University. “Our analysis showed that, while the population had recovered pretty quickly, the system was not yet as stable as it had been prior to the flooding event.”

Will the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway population reach preflood numbers? Future surveys will tell.

Swamp Rabbit Surveys at a Glance

  • Survey Frequency - Every 10 years since 1991 and as needed to track major disturbances
  • 300 - Missouri Latrine Sites
  • Swamp Rabbit’s Ecological Value - Habitat indicator. If Missouri’s bottomland hardwood forest disappears, so does the rabbit.

Missouri Swamp Rabbit Working Group

  • MDC
  • Missouri Department of Natural Resources
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Southeast Missouri State University
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen

Staff Writer - Larry Archer
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler