Within the Intermountain West’s vast sagebrush ocean lives a tiny, furry creature that spends the majority of its time in or near a burrow of its own making. The Pygmy Rabbit, North America’s smallest member of the rabbit family, weighs about a pound and is about the size of a grapefruit.
The pint-sized mammal makes its home in sagebrush-studded areas in northern and western Utah, says Utah State University alum and National Park Service ecologist Tammy Wilson. Sagebrush provides food and cover for the rabbit and, in winter, provides 99 percent of its diet. The rabbit’s activity pattern is described as “crepuscular,” meaning that the animal is primarily active at dawn and dusk.
In addition to its petite size, the pygmy rabbit can be distinguished from cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits by its coloring and its ears. The pygmy lacks white fur on its tail; has smaller, very hairy, white-margined ears and a narrower face. Its fur ranges in color from salt and pepper gray on its back, to reddish-brown on its feet.
The Pygmy rabbit is a great example of ‘cryptic’ coloration; that is, a coloration that conceals or disguises the animal’s shape. The animal’s mottled coloring makes it virtually invisible in the shade of a sagebrush plant, which helps it to elude predators.
Pygmy rabbits produce up to three litters during a breeding season and the average litter size is six. The animals need to produce large families as they’re popular prey for a host of predators, including weasels, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, raptors, owls, badgers, foxes, along with rats, ravens and crows. Not surprisingly, the elusive animal is never far from the protection of thick brush and a maze-like network of tunnels.
Known for their burrowing skills, Pygmy rabbits prefer loamy soils where they dig networks of tunnels with several entrances. In winter, the animals build tunnels in snow that connect to large cavities created by the weight of the snow on tall shrubs. The rabbits build the snow tunnels on top of the burrows they’ve dug in the ground.
“Everything the rabbit needs is inside,” Wilson says. “Their multi-chambered refuges provide food, protection from predators and protection from extreme cold.”
For example, on a zero-degree day in Utah’s northernmost Rich County, a pygmy rabbit in a snow tunnel enjoys a relatively balmy 32 degrees.
While ravenous predators are a hazard for pygmy rabbits, an even greater threat is shrinking habitat. As Utah’s sagelands give way to development, the tiny animal will have less food and less area for its cozy abode.
Thanks to USU’s Quinney College of Natural Resources for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.