San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide
Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni)

Sylvilagus auduboni
Desert Cottontail

Family: Leporidae (Rabbits and Hares)

The species name "auduboni" honors John James Audubon, pioneer naturalist and famous painter of birds and mammals.


The adult desert cottontail is light colored, tan to gray, with a yellowish tinge. The underside of the body is whitish. The desert cottontail often has an orange-brown throat patch. The tail is rounded and looks like a cotton ball. The desert cottontail is thirteen to seventeen inches long and weighs two to three pounds. The ears average three to four inches long, the hind feet three inches long. Females are larger than males.

Range and Habitat

The desert cottontail can be found throughout the Plains states from eastern Montana west to central Nevada and southern California and south to Baja California and northern mainland Mexico. Its habitat is dry grasslands and shrublands, riparian areas and pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Natural History

Desert cottontails are herbivores, and approximately 90% of their diet consists of grasses. However, they also feed on forbs, shrubs, cacti, domestic crops, and the bark of fruit trees. Cottontails receive most of their water from either the plants they eat or the dew that forms on the plants. The cottontail's front incisors are constantly growing and cut clean slices through the twigs or plants they eat at a forty-five-degree angle.

In California, the desert cottontail breeds year round. It can begin breeding when eighty days old. Its four or five litters per year can yield twenty to thirty young with the normal litter consisting of two to six young.

Natural predators of the desert cottontail include the golden and bald eagles, great horned owl, ferruginous hawk, badger, coyote, foxes, bobcat, and humans. Rattlesnakes prey upon the young. When alarmed, cottontails can run up to twenty miles per hour in a zigzag pattern to escape predators.

The average life span of the desert cottontail is two years, during which time the rabbits rarely stray from their place of birth.

Text by Connie Gatlin
Photo credit: Loan Program Specimen, John Sanborn for SDNHM

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