Behavioral Study on Cryptic Dice’s Cottontail

When discussing the role that mammals play in an ecosystem, oftentimes the first thought will be a predator or a keystone species (think eagles, jaguars, or tapirs for terrestrial ecosystems). While it’s true that these roles are paramount in the overall health of ecosystems, their livelihoods wouldn’t be possible without an abundance of prey species and proper vegetation levels. Balanced levels within each trophic layer are one of the most important factors in maintaining an effective ecosystem.

Example of what comprises each trophic layer in an ecosystem. (Source: Studymind UK)

Specifically discussing carnivorous or omnivorous predators, live prey are crucial for their survival. Invertebrates are essential for organisms like birds, reptiles, amphibians, and rodents, however the true variability of prey species is extensive. Everything listed above could be considered a prey species, in addition to even larger mammals like tamanduas, peccaries, pacas, even monkeys. Here in Cloudbridge, we have a particular species of prey that is endemic to this area, Dice’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus dicei), which has proven to be quite an abundant member of this forest ecosystem.

Dice’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus dicei) captured on the camera trap at 1900m (6234ft) elevation.

This native highland rabbit has been poorly studied throughout Costa Rica, as its small size and small distribution creates a difficult playing field for proper research. With an ever shrinking population size, it’s considered “Vulnerable” according to the IUCN, and its estimated habitat range is thought to dwindle in the future. With such a mysterious, yet staple organism living in the reserve, one of our researchers thought it was time to create a much needed baseline of information for this species.

Behaviors exhibited by S. dicei during the study (Source: Molly Wills)

Using camera traps situated throughout the reserve, researcher Molly Wills focused solely on S. dicei, monitoring the behavior using an ethogram to hopefully gain a better understanding of this cryptic species’ role and demeanor (above). Additionally, she was able to determine its distribution and potential abundance within the Cloudbridge property. From February to November 2023, data collected via the camera traps specifically about Dice’s Cottontail was evaluated against variables like behavior type, forest type, elevation, and population distribution. In order to see how this species interacted within different areas of the reserve, be sure to read the paper here.


Additional Reading:

  • What happens when trophic levels aren’t balanced? There are significant roles each level fulfills within every ecosystem, and a loss of this delicate balance can have detrimental, long term effects.
  • Although small, the impact rabbits have on ecological communities is extensive. Where they’re native, it’s essential their populations are maintained (as wild rabbits in general are considered to be «endangered»). But conversely, where they aren’t native, they have proven to be extremely destructive, like in NSW, Australia.
  • While typically the focus is on terrestrial food webs, those that exist in the ocean are equally as, if not even more, important than their terrestrial counterparts.

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