Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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The endangered volcano rabbit lives on the slopes of four volcanoes, all within 45 minutes of Mexico City.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Volcano rabbit


What is the volcano rabbit?

The short-eared, short-legged mammal is one of the world’s smallest rabbits and is named for its unique habitat: It lives on the slopes of just four extinct volcanoes in central Mexico, each about 45 minutes away from Mexico City. The volcano rabbit is endangered, with fewer than 7,000 individuals thought to remain in the wild.

Description

The tiny rabbits weigh about a pound fully grown. Their ears are stubby and rounded, and their fur is short, dense, and either black or brown in color, which helps the rabbits blend in with the rocky, volcanic soils of their habitat. They breed primarily in the warm, rainy months, with pregnancies usually lasting 40 days. The rabbits are crepuscular—most active in early morning and at dusk. They typically spend their downtime in underground burrows, where they live in small groups of three or four.

Habitat and diet

Volcano rabbits depend on a particular kind of grass called zacaton for survival. It grows in thick clumps on the alpine slopes where the rabbits live. Volcano rabbits move through pathways in the grass, carved by the movement of other animals. Zacaton, tall and dense, helps the rabbits hide from predators, such as long-tailed weasels, bobcats, and red-tailed hawks.

Zacaton is also the primary component of volcano rabbits’ diet, although they get additional nutrition from a variety of foliage, like plants and tree bark.

Threats

The volcano rabbits’ range has been fragmented by road, agricultural, and urban development. They’re now found in fewer than 20 disconnected patches of open grassland and pine forest, all about 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of the volcanoes. Habitat fragmentation makes the remaining, carved-up patches less healthy: It becomes difficult for seeds to spread, limiting the diversity and abundance of plant life in any given spot, depleting the rabbits’ food sources.

Agriculture also reduces the remaining grassland. Cattle and sheep overgraze on the zacaton, and farmers burn the grass to promote new growth in pastures and cut it for thatch.

Climate change is also a threat. One study concludes that rising temperatures will drive the volcano rabbits higher into the mountains, perhaps by 2,300 feet over the next century, further shrinking their range.

Conservation

Although it is illegal in Mexico to hunt the scarce volcano rabbits, the laws often aren’t enforced. Some individuals from indigenous communities near the volcano rabbits’ habitat are now engaging in conservation initiatives. One indigenous community, the Milpa Alta, has assembled a conservation brigade which helps monitor the rabbits, although the group struggles from a lack of funding and resources.