Beach bunnies? Florida's undeveloped coastlines provide prime habitat for marsh rabbits
They hop along the sandy dunes, weaving in and out of palmetto thickets while munching on grasses.
Perfectly camouflaged by the desert-brown foliage found at many beaches, they can be found anywhere beach meets the mangroves.
They're rabbits, beach bunnies that call home some of the most prime real estate in the Sunshine State.
"We see a lot them," said Eve Haverfield, director of Turtle Time Inc., a volunteer group that monitors sea turtle nesting on some Lee County beaches. "When we see them they freeze, I guess they're trying to blend into the environment."
Haverfield is familiar with the group of rabbits that inhabit the north end of Bonita Beach, where areas like public access 10 directly abut swampy mangroves.
"We see them on Big Hickory Island (to the north of Bonita Beach), and they just eat vegetation," Haverfield said. "They don't interfere with the turtles."
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Marsh rabbits are slightly smaller than their cottontail cousins
Marsh rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris) are slightly smaller than their cottontail cousins, and they're darker in color as well.
Marsh rabbits are found throughout the Southeastern United States and along the Atlantic coast.
Beach-dwelling rabbits here can be found on natural and low-density developed beaches that offer vegetative cover, food and close proximity to water.
Mike Gillikin, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said bunnies found at the beach are one of two species.
"They could be eastern cottontails or could be marsh rabbits, … if you are seeing them in proximity of wetlands," he said. "Both of these species are found throughout Florida."
Marsh rabbits are more active during dusk and dawn periods
Strong swimmers, marsh rabbits are found in thick growth near water, and they can be found from inlands freshwater ponds to the brackish coastal bays and relatively undeveloped beach areas.
Marsh rabbits are more active during dusk and dawn periods but also throughout the daytime, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
They live five or six years and can reproduce several times in a year, according to biologists.
"As far as I know, size of rabbits occurring on the beaches is going to be similar to that of rabbits occurring in more inland areas," Gillikin said. "Their diet is still going to be plant based, but the species consumed is going to be different because many of the plant species found in coastal areas are different than the plant species that inhabit inland areas."
Marsh rabbits, the ones most often seen at the beach, tend to prefer wetland areas that are barely above sea level.
Cottontails are found on higher, drier ground
Cottontails, on the other hand, are found on higher, drier ground.
Known for their namesake cotton-white tails, these rabbits are being increasingly seen in areas like Cape Coral, as reported by The News-Press in 2019.
"They're more common on the backyard cameras we have in people's backyards," said Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation. "And they're definitely cottontails."
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She said the rabbits are a sign that some extent of the food chain is still operational.
"If there are rabbits around, I think there are going to be predators, foxes, bobcats and alligators," Budd said. "So they will all prey on rabbits, so be mindful of the predators that are likely there to feed on them."
Gillikin said rabbits that live and feed on local beaches provide the same ecological services as their mainland cousins.
"Rabbits occurring within coastal areas likely provide similar ecosystem services as inland rabbits," Gillikin said. "As herbivores, they help maintain a diversity of vegetation height on the landscape. They are also a prey source for various avian and mammalian predators that may occur in that area, including owls, bobcats, foxes, or coyotes."
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