Bramble On: Citizen Scientists Rock Research for Rabbits

New England cottontail conservation effort brings UNH researchers and citizen scientists together
Volunteer and graduate student in woods with clipboard and measuring tape

Stonyfield Farm yogurt is host to more than an iconic New Hampshire yogurt brand. The shrublands surrounding the company’s Londonderry headquarters are home to a small population of state-endangered New England cottontail. In December 2018, a group of volunteer citizen scientists gathered at the facility to learn and practice data collection methods to support UNH research.

New England cottontails have been the subject of restoration efforts in the state since 2008. Habitat creation and restoration and captive breeding and reintroduction are all strategies being deployed to reinvigorate Granite State’s only native rabbit species. To date, more than 1,100 acres of public and private land in New Hampshire has been managed or maintained for New England cottontail habitat. One very important component of these efforts has been missing, though.

“Currently, no mechanism is in place to demonstrate the success of habitat management efforts,” says Melissa Bauer, a doctoral student and research assistant in the department of natural resources and the environment at UNH.

Bauer teamed up with Haley Andreozzi ’13G, UNH Extension’s wildlife outreach program coordinator, to design a training and protocol for citizen scientists to contribute to their research. “Data collected by citizen scientists will help us understand how cottontail populations have responded to prior management and what measures could increase abundance to recover cottontail populations,” Bauer says.

Habitat is critical to the success of New England cottontails—they require dense, shrubby vegetation to thrive. Understanding the quality of habitat through a broader geographical region will enrich the data already being collected. This is where citizen scientists are not only helpful, but crucial. It would be impossible for Bauer and her team to cover all the sites managed for New England cottontails before leaves grow in the spring. Shrubs are challenging enough to get through without leaves, so it is important that this data be collected between January and April. In addition to the 15 volunteer-surveyed parcels, UNH collected vegetation data on 18 additional sites, bringing the total to 33 researched properties.

After a presentation about the New England cottontail and an overview of the ongoing research, volunteers were instructed in the use of a mapping application called Avenza Maps. This tool allows Andreozzi and Bauer to direct volunteers to randomly assigned points within habitat sites.

“This is a crucial part of the protocol,” Andreozzi says. “The terrain can be difficult to navigate, so removing our own bias of avoidance is important to the integrity of the data being collected.”

Each volunteer signed up for a parcel of conservation land to survey over the winter, where they collected information about understory density, height, canopy cover, refuges (such as brush piles) and predator perches. They then reported this information back to Bauer and Andreozzi, who will analyze and use this data to aid managers in planning future actions to conserve New England cottontails.

Interested in citizen science opportunities near you?

Join Nature Groupie