It is hard to believe that the wide-eyed, puffy-tailed rabbits that scurry around campus are actually an invasive species, while the species native to the region is disappearing. These endangered New England cottontails are the focus of Kimberly Neil-Cohen GS’s research. Threatened by the disappearance of their natural habitat, the New England cottontails are becoming overshadowed by the Eastern cottontail, a burgeoning species which is able to survive in environments with thinner patches of cover.
Neil-Cohen, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, studies genetic variation in the New England cottontail and hopes to expand her research to include the Eastern cottontail as well. Specifically, she looks at the histocompatibility complex, a set of proteins that influence immune system function, in the New England cottontail.
Because New England cottontails are endangered in Rhode Island, knowledge of their genetic health can inform the rabbits’ risk to disease and help states make decisions on how to move rabbits between the five remaining populations in the Northeast to enable their survival, Neil-Cohen said. Her dissertation research involves developing genomic-based methods for detecting potential pathogens. These methods are more cost-effective and efficient ways of determining microbes that could put the endangered rabbit species at risk, she said.
Current species management plans focus on providing better success for the New England cottontails rather than eradicating the Eastern cottontail said Catherine Sparks, assistant director of the Bureau of Natural Resources at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. These plans include carefully studying and monitoring the “five remnant populations” of rabbits in the Northeast, including a captive breeding and conservation project at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Neil-Cohen said.
One conservation strategy involves increasing the population’s genetic diversity to improve its health. Neil-Cohen’s research also involves analyzing the diversity of functional, significant genes of the New England cottontail. “It’s very encouraging that they have retained moderate diversity,” she said. “There’s strong evidence that (these genes) are under natural selection.”
Neil-Cohen works closely with the Roger Williams Park Zoo, as well as wildlife departments across New England and researchers at the University of Rhode Island. Together, they aim to conserve the New England cottontail species. “One of the greatest pieces of this work is how collaborative it is,” she said. “It’s wonderful as a student to be a part of research that spans state and federal wildlife agencies, zoos and other facilities,” she said. She credits the University for her positive research experience. “The quality of science that happens in the ecology and evolutionary biology department is outstanding — there’s a great sense of community and incredibly supportive mentorship.”
Because there is currently “no hope” of eradicating the invasive Eastern cottontails in New England, according to Sparks, we can expect them to remain a hallmark of Brown’s scenery. “I see them a lot,” said Camille Tulloss ’21. “Sometimes I see four in one day.” Despite their invasive status, the rabbits appear to be quite friendly and approachable, Tulloss said. “You can often get close to them, but I’ve never personally chased one before.”