Tiny Hoppers: Exploring the World of Pygmy Rabbits

Elizabeth Lopez

U.S Fish and Wildlife/ EFTA

What I’ve learned:

Pygmy rabbits are crucial to the sagebrush grasslands ecology. Other creatures use their former burrows, including cottontails, gopher snakes, and short-horned lizards. Pygmy rabbits are prey for predators, including coyotes, hawks, and owls. Insects like bot flies feed fly-catching birds as adults and are parasites on pygmy rabbits. Large areas of sagebrush are necessary for feeding and breeding habitat for birds, including greater sage grouse, sage thrashers, and sagebrush sparrow in Washington. Pygmy rabbits are important in sagebrush ecosystems, and biologists want to understand more about this role.

Pygmy rabbits need sagebrush because it provides shelter and a place to hide from predators. Most importantly, they require the soft, loose dirt beneath the sagebrush to create several openings in 3-inch-diameter tunnels. They are the smallest species of rabbit in North America and the only one that excavates its own burrows. Every day, the female enters the burrow to milk the kits after leaving to feed and backfill the opening. She then returns to re-excavate the burrow. The juveniles leave the burrow two weeks after birth and are self-sufficient. Individual pygmy rabbits normally stay within 200 yards of their burrow system. Knowing this information, Katherine Soltysiak invited me to trap pygmy rabbits and apply the vaccaination hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2). When we first arrive to the location we sanitized our boots with bleach in order to try and combat this issue.

We commenced our fieldwork promptly at 3:30 a.m., recognizing the necessity of avoiding rabbit handling during peak temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Employing a GPS locator, we meticulously navigated through the sagebrush habitat, strategically selecting trap locations. To simulate natural burrows and mitigate potential thermal stress, we judiciously affixed burlap covers atop the traps, concurrently offering essential shade. These measures were taken with utmost professionalism, ensuring the well-being and comfort of the target rabbit species, while adhering to best practices in wildlife research and conservation.

The boxes that were used to “store” the rabbits as we hand them one at a time.

During the trapping expedition, we encountered two specimens of cottontail rabbits that had inadvertently found their way into the traps. Our observations of cotton tails in the vicinity were confirmed by the presence of their scat along our trail. In such instances, we exercised utmost care in releasing them back into their natural habitat, ensuring minimal disturbance. Although our endeavor did not yield any captures of pygmy rabbits, this additional evidence further substantiates the concerning trend of population decline. It underscores the urgent need for proactive measures to safeguard the survival of these invaluable rabbit species.


Ballinger, S. (2015, May 5). Central Washington’s rebounding pygmy rabbits. Wenatchee Naturalist. https://www.wenatcheenaturalist.com/central-washingtons-pygmy-rabbits/

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