status: Endangered, IUCN Endangered, ESA
Description and biology
The volcano rabbit, also known as the Mexican pygmy rabbit, has short, thick dark brown hair. It is one of the few species of short-eared rabbits. Its rounded ears measure just 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) long. The animal also has short hind legs and feet and a very short tail. An average volcano rabbit has a head and body length of 10.5 to 13 inches (26.5 to 33 centimeters) and weighs between 14 and 18 ounces (397 and 510 grams).
Active mainly during the day, the volcano rabbit feeds on the tender young leaves of zacaton or bunchgrass (various wiry grass species that grow in low clumps in Mexico and the southwestern United States). Its main predators are long-tailed weasels, bobcats, and rattlesnakes.
Volcano rabbits construct elaborate burrows in deep sandy soil. Entrances are hidden in the base of grass clumps. For temporary shelter during the day, the animals sometimes use abandoned pocket-gopher burrows or the hollows between rocks and boulders.
Scientists know little about the social structure of volcano rabbits. Groups of two to seven animals have been observed in the wild. Male and female volcano rabbits mate primarily between January and April. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 38 to 40 days, a female gives birth to a litter of one to five infants.
Habitat and current distribution
The volcano rabbit is found only in central Mexico on the slopes of four volcanoes: Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhautl, El Pelado, and Tláloc. The animal inhabits pine forests on those slopes at elevations between 9,000 and 14,000 feet (2,740 and 4,270 meters). These areas are often dry in the winter and rainy in the summer. Biologists (people who study living organisms) are unsure of the total number of volcano rabbits currently in existence.
History and conservation measures
The volcano rabbit has traditionally been hunted for food and sport. Although laws have been passed outlawing the hunting of the animals, they are seldom enforced.
Forest fires, the conversion of forest land into farmland, the overgrazing of cattle and sheep, and the cutting of trees for timber have all contributed to the destruction of volcano rabbit habitat. Many of the forest fires result when farmers burn bunchgrass areas in hopes of promoting new growth for their livestock (a process known as slash-and-burn agriculture).
Each of the remaining volcano rabbit populations lies within a 45-minute drive of Mexico City. Now the world's largest city, it has a rapidly growing population of 20,000,000 people. As the city and rural settlements around it continue to expand, volcano rabbit habitat continues to decrease. As of 1998, only 16 patches of suitable habitat exist.
Part of the volcano rabbit's present-day range lies within the Izta-Popo and Zoquiapan National Parks. However, habitat destruction continues even with these protected areas.