Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Department

Environmental Sciences

First Advisor

Thomas P. Husband

Abstract

The changing landscape in New England over the past century has had a profound effect on the abundance and distribution of native wildlife species that prefer early successional habitat. In the mid 20th Century many of these species, including the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis, NEC), experienced an increase in population numbers as abandoned agricultural fields matured into early successional habitats (ESH). However, as these ESH further matured into forests, populations of early successional wildlife species declined. Possibly as the result of this habitat loss, NEC has so declined that only one habitat patch has been identified that contains NEC in Rhode Island since 2005. The species is now a candidate for listing as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To identify sites currently occupied by NEC and eastern cottontail (S. floridanus, EC) in Rhode Island, I conducted an intensive statewide survey. I chose survey locations using three criteria: (1) the area is a known historic location for NEC; (2) the area revealed a high calculated habitat suitability index (HSI) value as determined by a model that was developed for NEC; and (3) the location was indicated by a model that generated a statewide cover map of early successional habitats. I also conducted intensive vegetation analyses at known locations of NEC and EC in Connecticut and Rhode Island to better describe their chosen habitat and identify any differences in preference between the two species. Sites in Rhode Island that were occupied by cottontails had more shrub cover, herbaceous cover, less canopy cover, and lower basal area than sites that were not occupied by cottontails. In Connecticut, sites that were occupied by NEC had more canopy cover, and greater basal area than sites occupied by EC. In a comparison of site selection models, the map of early successional habitats identified more sites with cottontails present than the habitat suitability index.

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