Studying the world’s smallest rabbit in southeast Oregon
Researcher Miranda Crowell is no Elmer Fudd, but she is hunting rabbits.
Well, pygmy rabbits, to be exact.
For the past 15 years, BLM wildlife biologists and graduate student researchers in southern Oregon have been attempting to learn more about the survival rate, range size and even burrow selection process for the world’s smallest rabbits.
The trick, of course, is that catching tiny rabbits is not so easy. They are small, fast and live underground. Adult pygmies weigh a less than a pound.
"We used to go out and look for a pygmy rabbit, then chase it to its burrows,” said Crowell, a researcher working on her thesis at the University of Nevada.
A pygmy rabbit life span is only a few years, and almost their entire diet consists of sagebrush, so bait trapping isn’t an option. All of these factors explain why little is known about them.
For example, why do the rabbits continue to eat primarily sagebrush outside of winter, when other grasses and seeds are available?
“There are a lot of toxins in sagebrush,” Crowell explained. “There must be something in sagebrush that they need or really like.”
Researchers these days identify a pygmy burrow by its size and the nearby scat, setting traps in the middle of the night and returning immediately at dawn to check them.
By the end of July, Crowell’s team had successfully captured and tagged 50 pygmy rabbits in the area of Beaty Butte, a remote section of southeast Oregon between Steens Mountain and the community of Lakeview.
Radio collars don’t work on pygmies because they are too small, so tagging consists of inserting a grain-of-rice-sized chip into the rabbit’s neck, just like a family pet gets for tracking.
Many other measurements are gathered, too: DNA sample; weight; hind foot; and ear. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
Crowell said she hopes to return in the winter to compare the animal’s movements between seasons. In addition to BLM-managed land, research is also being collected from the nearby Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and two sites in Nevada.
One of the many interesting pygmy rabbit characteristics Crowell is learning about: socialization.
“Studies in the ‘40s and ‘80s assumed they were solitary, but now we know they use each other’s burrow systems,” said Crowell.
Check back later for results from the winter ‘rabbit hunting’ efforts!
Photos and videos captured in July of 2016 by Larisa Bogardus, BLM