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'Bunny bathrooms' help track elusive species

Eric Schauber knows the concept draws laughs _ researchers, catering to the fussy bathroom habits of swamp rabbits, setting out fake log latrines for the reclusive animals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Eric Schauber knows the concept draws laughs — researchers, catering to the fussy bathroom habits of swamp rabbits, setting out fake log latrines for the reclusive animals.

But the Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist says the U.S. government-funded study is serious stuff. It may help sort out whether state and federal programs, including those that pay farmers to return some of their agriculture soil to wetlands or wilderness, will help the rabbits' numbers bounce back in Illinois.

"The real question is how quickly do they start using habitat that's taken out of agricultural production and allowed to grow back into natural vegetation?" Schauber said. "How quickly does it become suitable habitat?"

Cousins of the cottontail, swamp rabbits have longer legs and coarser fur, favor bottomland hardwood forests and are most abundant in the southeastern United States. The rabbits are excellent swimmers, and to escape predators, they can dive under water and remain submerged with just their noses breaking the surface.

Because the rabbits are so reclusive, gauging their population is difficult. But in southern Illinois, the northernmost edge of their range, experts believe the animals' numbers have become fragmented as their moist, nutrient-rich turf — in many cases floodplain — was converted over time into farmland.

With the help of a four-year, more than $200,000 federal grant that also covers their research of mourning doves and quail, Schauber and others at SIU's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory are conducting the rabbit study with a simple baseline: Knowing where the bunnies have been requires knowing what they left behind.

Enter the trickery of rabbit restrooms.

Rooms with a view
For reasons still unclear to wildlife specialists, swamp rabbits prefer mossy, rotting fallen logs or stumps when nature calls, perhaps favoring the elevated views to keep an eye on predators. Because one-time farmland lacks fallen timber, SIU researchers late last fall created 400 rabbit restrooms and placed them on 30 sites, mostly in four of the state's southernmost counties of Alexander, Pulaski, Massac and Johnson.

Costing about $2 apiece, the long, narrow privies were framed of plywood and covered with unsupported carpeting, mimicking the spongy give of a rotting log or stump. Live traps were set near the fake logs, allowing researchers to authenticate the users as swamp rabbits.

The rabbits quickly found the carpeted commodes quite comfortable.

"We immediately saw signs at a few of the sites," says Paul Scharine, the SIU graduate research assistant from Wisconsin whose job included routinely checking the commodes and logging how much of their pelletized deposits rabbits left.

Within a month of the carpeted logs being set out, he said, two of the 30 sites showed swamp rabbit droppings. Not much later, eight sites showed proof that swamp rabbits had been there.

"Every latrine log was used, with upwards of 400 to 500 pellets on a log," Scharine said. "It was very promising."

The traps caught more than two dozen of the rabbits, each of which was released.

Looking for connections
To Schauber, an assistant professor in Southern Illinois' zoology department, the findings illustrate that the rabbits use the one-time farmland at a relatively early stage of regrowth, and that if the land was restored to wilderness, the animals would fill in those areas where they've been less common, making their populations more contiguous throughout the region.

"The populations that are left seem to be fragmented, separated by quite a distance," Schauber says. "We're thinking of possible ways to connect those up."

John Cole, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' upland wildlife program manager, called the early results promising. "So far, they've found that swamp rabbits are utilizing these areas, so that makes us pretty encouraged" that programs boosting habitat restoration are working, he said.

Researchers also submit that the results so far underscore the worthiness of the federal underwriting of the project.

The study's grant through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is from a trust fund, of sorts, created decades ago by the Pittman-Robertson Act, which earmarks a federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition and hunting equipment for projects tied to wildlife restoration.

In this study of the swamp rabbits, Schauber says, the funds cover far more than the roughly $800 price tag of the bunny bathrooms. The grant, he says, pays for stipends for graduate students studying the rabbits, quails and doves, along with computer modeling.

"It's valuable stuff," he says of the research. "It's a far larger project than just swamp rabbits."

Along the way, researchers say, the study could go a long way toward better understanding the rabbits notorious for their feistiness — as a former president found.

In 1979, then President Jimmy Carter told aides of his encounter with a hissing, teeth-gnashing swamp rabbit he said was intent on climbing into his boat as he fished in a pond on his Georgia farm. Carter shooed away the critter — jokingly dubbed by the press as the "killer rabbit" — by splashing water at the animal.