Chadwick Rittenhouse, assistant research professor of landscape ecology and wildlife in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, grew up hunting and fishing in Wisconsin. His love of the outdoors and interest in helping preserve the delicate balance between humans and animals has set him on an personal, academic and real-world mission to help save a species, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis).
While it seems there is no shortage of rabbits, the problem is a declining population of New England cottontails, nearly identical to the more common Eastern cottontail. According to Rittenhouse, the two species are so similar that, “ There are probably only six people in the state who can tell them apart by looking at them.” Positive identification is made at the genetic level and by observing their different choices of habitat, a preference that has made all the difference for the beleaguered New England cottontail.
New England cottontails live in overgrown fields, tangles and thickets, and young forests and woodlands between 3 and 20 years of age. Historically their habitat was created by hurricanes, forest fires, beaver dams, active tree cutting from logging or farm abandonment. Once the forest grows up, the New England cottontails must move on. Their more adaptable relatives, the Eastern cottontails, take up residence in a broader range of habitats.
The New England cottontail is currently under consideration for listing as a federally endangered species, and Rittenhouse is part of a team of wildlife professionals, including Howard Kilpatrick (PhD 2010, UConn), Paul Rothbart (BS 1975, UConn) and Lisa Wahle (MS 1990, UConn) working with funding from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to quantify the amount of New England cottontail habitat in Connecticut. Rittenhouse estimates there are 13,536 acres of potential habitat for New England cottontails.
Rittenhouse used a combination of state-of-the-art technology and computer algorithms to determine the potential habitat. Using images from Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, which recorded light values in the visible and infrared range, Rittenhouse translated the information into an assessment of whether an area is forested or not forested for every year since 1985. Through this approach, he was able to generate a “disturbance list” of where changes have occurred.
He then used aerial photographs to spot-check the data. By engaging in “ground truthing,” Rittenhouse used aerial photographs and actual visits to 1,200 locations to verify his findings. (more…)