The Under-appreciated Black-tailed Jackrabbit

A Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) attempts to hide on a cold day during the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in northern Nevada, October 2017.

A Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) attempts to hide on a cold day during the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in northern Nevada, October 2017.

We are walking our fifteenth mile of the day. The accumulated sun and wind exposure while walking around sagebrush and over unstable volcanic rock has taken its toll. Attentiveness is flagging. I am starting to get tunnel vision as my blood sugar declines and I try to focus on the ground looking for animal burrows and scat. A sudden explosion next to my feet snaps me out of it.

"Jackrabbit!"

Everyone turns to see it lope with the speed and grace of a gazelle across the hillside and out of site.

While our primary concern during the surveys we performed for the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in northern Nevada was a search for the sensitive Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) and its sign, Black-tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) undoubtedly stole the show. They were - by far - the most abundant mammal of any decent size in the survey area (Least Chipmunks [Tamias minimus] were common flashes as well, but are miniscule in comparison). Our daily counts for this species peaked at 21. Their propensity for hiding in scrapes at the base of large bushes and staying there until you are about to step on them was great for raising your heart rate.

Range of the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Source.

Range of the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Source.

Our experience during this survey caused me to think a little more deeply about this species, one which few give much consideration to unless its through the legends of ones with antlers. A western species, the Black-tailed Jackrabbit is found throughout much of the United States west of the Mississippi River and south into central Mexico. It is most common in arid environments, especially the Great Basin Desert. As we found during our surveys, much of the desert floor is covered with jackrabbit scat which can persist for long periods (with a study finding a mean defecation rate in the wild of 1792 pellets per hectare per day). This made surveys like ours, where we were searching for smaller Pygmy Rabbit scat, much more difficult.

Jackrabbits, despite having the word "rabbit" in their name, are not actually rabbits; they are hares. Hares, unlike rabbits, have young above ground (without the protection afforded by a burrow), with eyes that are fully open and skin that is fully furred. 

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the jackrabbit is its large ears, which serve to radiate heat from the body. It is for that reason, as shown in the featured image on this page, that jackrabbits keep their ears down during cold weather.

The Wikipedia page for Black-tailed Jackrabbit provides an excellent and detailed account of the natural history of this species.

An alert Black-tailed Jackrabbit during surveys conducted as part of the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in Humboldt County, Nevada, September 2017.

An alert Black-tailed Jackrabbit during surveys conducted as part of the Owyhee Roads Fuelbreak Project in Humboldt County, Nevada, September 2017.