With adults weighing less than one pound, the pygmy rabbit is the smallest species of rabbit in North America. In Washington State’s Columbia Basin, the remaining pygmy rabbit population is endangered and faces compounding threats. The fracturing of its shrub-steppe home in Central Washington, an increasing occurrence of wildfire, and a new form of rabbit hemorrhagic disease all push the species toward extinction in the region.
Pygmy rabbits are typically found in areas that include tall, dense stands of(Artemisia spp.). This sagebrush sea acts as a forest in miniature for these tiny rabbits, providing both shelter and food. This species digs its own burrows, which are typically found in deep, loose soils. However, pygmy rabbits occasionally do make use of burrows abandoned by other species, such as the yellow-bellied marmot.
Given the pygmy rabbits’ high dependence on sagebrush for food and shelter, large-scale loss and fragmentation of native shrub-steppe habitat has played a primary role in the long-term decline of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.
Ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.
While pygmy rabbits eat mostlyin the winter months, they seek out a more varied diet in the spring and summer months by adding grasses, particularly native bunchgrasses.
Adults range between 9.3 and 11.6 inches in length and weigh less than a pound, making it the smallest rabbit in North America. Fur color varies from brown to dark grey with white around the margins of their short, round ears. They are distinguishable from other Leporids by their small size, short ears, small hind legs and lack of white on their tail.
Breeding for the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit occurs from February through July. Females may have up to three litters per year and average six young per litter. Pregnant females dig secret, relatively shallow burrows, known as natal burrows. They begin to dig and supply nesting material to these burrows several days prior to giving birth, and may give birth and nurse young in the runway to the burrow’s entrance. After nursing, the young return to the burrow and the female fills the burrow entrance with loose soil to disguise the immediate area and avoid detection.
Pygmy rabbits are preyed upon by weasels, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, birds of prey, owls, foxes and sometimes humans, who sometimes have difficulty distinguishing from other rabbit species. Predation is the primary cause of mortality among both adults and juveniles, and can be as high as 50 percent in the first five weeks of life.
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