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Swamp Rabbits

The Swamp Rabbit

Scientific name: Sylvilagus aquaticus Length: 14-17 inches
Weight: 4-6 pounds
Pelage: short, course, black to rusty brown with white underside
Habitat: swamps, lowlands near water Food: herbivore
Behavior: primarily solitary, until mating season
Breeding: throughout the year with it peaking February - April
Litter: 1-6, average 3
Threats: larger swamp mammals, man; swamp rabbits are listed as endangered in Indiana, and are illegal to hunt or trap! 

Swamp Rabbits Aren't Bad for All Carters

Poor Jimmy Carter. He certainly had a tough break when it came to the "Killer Rabbit" incident. However, there is a Hoosier grateful in knowing that the swamp rabbit will be safe in his own backyard. In 2000, Mike Carter of Knox County cooperated with the Indiana Heritage Trust in preserving 108 acres of his family's bottomland forest, including an oxbow of the White River where swamp rabbits make their home.

The swamp rabbit is an interesting creature. Although the largest cottontail found in North America, the swamp rabbit differs from its other white-tailed relatives. The biggest difference is the fact that it is a semi-aquatic animal. In fact, the swamp rabbit's home range is limited within 1.25 miles of water.

Water is necessary for the swamp rabbit's survival for several reasons. Watery habitats - which include wetlands, swamps, marshes, floodplains and wet bottomlands - offer the rabbits plenty of grasses, sedges and tree seedlings they enjoy. It also provides the swamp rabbits with ample protection from predators.

Like all rabbits, swamp rabbits are swift creatures that will maneuver their way out of most predicaments. They protect themselves by holing up in trees, running in a zigzag pattern to confuse those after them and taking off into the water. Once in the water, the swamp rabbit will hide in thick vegetation or immerse themselves with only their nose sticking out.

Threatened in Indiana

Swamp rabbit population distributions extend northward from Gulf of Mexico to Knox County in southern Indiana . Historically, the rabbit was found in Gibson, Posey, Spencer, Warrick, Vanderburgh and Knox counties. Today, the swamp rabbit can only be found in small populations around Indiana's swamp lowlands along the Ohio and Wabash rivers. According to the Indiana's Fish and Wildlife Services, the swamp rabbit is a state endangered species due to habitat destruction and degradation. Without the protection from hunting and the increasing efforts to save the swamp rabbit's habitat, there is a possibility of losing this species in Indiana.

Wetland draining, increasing agricultural encroachment and protection against flooding are all significant threats to the remaining swamp rabbit populations. With only .91% of Indiana covered by wetlands, the swamp rabbit has very few places to live. The Nature Conservancy and the Indiana Wetlands Reserve Program are just two organizations in our great state that are hoping to protect the remaining wetlands for the benefit of the swamp rabbit as well as man.

The Deal with President Carter's Ordeal 

In 1979, the swamp rabbit enjoyed a brief stint of notoriety when one was involved in a too-close-for-comfort encounter with President Jimmy Carter. While spending a quiet afternoon fishing in Georgia , a visibly agitated swamp rabbit approached Carter's canoe and attempted to climb on board. The rabbit, which could have been fleeing from a predator, was said to have been "hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared." Using a paddle, the then-President splashed water in hopes to dissuade the rabbit from moving in onto his boat.


The humorous, but rather embarrassing story, should have been kept within the White House walls yet his staff couldn't keep their mouths shut. White House Press Secretary Jody Powell mentioned the attacking-rabbit incident to an Associated Press reporter who in turn ran the story on the front page of the Washington Post. What followed was a media blitz that left President Carter looking foolish and the entire episode became a symbol of Carter's floundering presidency. 

Interesting Swamp Rabbit Facts
  • Swamp rabbits are also known as swampers, cane cutters and cane jakes.
  • The Sylvilagus aquaticus isn't the only rabbit species that likes to swim. Marsh rabbits, or Sylvilagus palustris, are also semi-aquatic animals.
  • Swamp rabbits can reach speeds up to 48 miles per hour when fleeing from predators.
  • Unlike other rabbits, swamp rabbits do not burrow for shelter. However, many huddle in burrows abandoned by another animal during the winter months.
  • While most cottontails are not territorial, the swamp rabbits are: the males mark their territory by "chinning," using pheromones from a gland on the chin to scent-mark.
  • In order to maximize the nutrients gained from food, the swamp rabbit practices coprophagy - the act of re-ingesting their own excrement. They produce two kinds of fecal pellets - soft green ones and brown one. The soft green pellets are eaten so microorganisms in the stomach will attach to the pellets and increase the amount of nutrients extracted the second time around.
  • Coprophagy is practiced during the daytime when resting, not at night when rabbits feed.
  • Females will often adopt orphan young from another nest. The young will leave the mother when they are 12 to 15 days old.
  • The press dubbed President Carter's attacker the "Killer Rabbit," in honor of the violent rabbit in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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