THE COTTONTAIL CONUNDRUM
There are a few things you can be sure of in West Hartford, Connecticut. Zaytoon’s tabbouleh will always be perfect. Conard and Hall students will always exaggerate the rivalry between their two schools. The picnic table that hides behind the trees at Fern Park will always be the best spot for an earnest conversation. And a walk through a residential neighborhood will always include a rabbit sighting.
Despite their abundance, eastern cottontails are revered by Connecticutians. Come across a squirrel, perched weightlessly on the side of a tree, and you’ll glance or grimace. But notice a little bunny, peeking out from the shrubbery beside that shed down the road, and you’ll coo and cackle for a bit longer than is necessary before continuing on your way.
Perhaps there’s something endearing about that little tuft of white near the rabbit’s rump that gives the species its name. Or maybe we suburbanites have been conditioned by years of disingenuous block party chit-chat to envy the shy, solitary lifestyle of the cottontail.
What a lot of locals don’t know is that the eastern cottontail isn’t very shy at all. In fact, “eastern cottontail” is a misnomer: the rabbit was introduced to the area in the “late 1800s and early 1900s,” according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. So the cottontail, little paws and all, is a nonnative species that has managed not only to survive in a new ecosystem, but also to drive out its competition, the nearly indistinguishable New England cottontail.
“Nonnative.” What a filthy word. We’re always hearing stories about how local species with a “claim to the land” are usurped by some foreign foe, but how exactly does that happen, and why exactly should we care? Should we hate the eastern cottontails for outcompeting their brethren and invest in programs to maintain New England cottontails? And is any species really native, anyway?
We begin our investigation in my backyard. I’ve spent all of my fifteen years with this untamed space as a constant backdrop. Since I first learned to toddle into the sunroom and up to its sliding glass doors, I’ve been aware of the eastern cottontail burrow in the far right corner of the yard, just below the forsythia plant. We’ve enjoyed a pleasant relationship, the rabbits and I. They’ve learned to tolerate my advances, and I’ve learned to respect their skittishness.
When my family eats lunch on the patio, there is always a cottontail or two grazing blissfully, with a single ear rotated toward the clanging forks and knives of the Blackwell-Lipkind clan. A symbiotic relationship, you could say: humans enjoy their nervous companions, and rabbits ransack vegetable gardens.
It was only a few years ago that I learned about the New England cottontail. My realization came at the hands of my older brother’s science teacher, who mentioned the threatened creatures and piqued my sibling’s interest.
I learned about the sharp decline in the New England cottontail population that accompanied the introduction and instant success of the eastern cottontail. I learned about government efforts to maintain the New England cottontail population through breeding programs and environmental monitoring. And, most surprising, I learned about the deep-rooted animus harbored by some locals—including my brother—for the prevailing species.
What confuses me about this aggression, and what I have articulated to my brother, is that the success of the eastern cottontail in no way represents some sort of evil master plan to stomp out the innocent bunny-in-residence; rather, it serves as yet another example of natural selection.
Natural selection is the theory advanced by Charles Darwin and widely accepted in modern scientific circles that individuals with traits that allow them to survive and reproduce are more likely to pass on their genes than individuals with traits that do not allow them to survive and reproduce. It’s elegant, really: the fittest in a particular environment persist. But we worry about situations in which human intervention seems to threaten some other state of things that we deem “natural.”
In the case of the cottontails, it is reasonable to assume that the introduction of the eastern cottontail created competition within a specific niche. Ultimately, the eastern cottontails prevailed, and the New England cottontails were left with few resources.
From our perspective, that sort of usurpation may appear cruel. But to suggest that one species consciously conspires to extinguish another is to project consciousness and rational thought onto a small mammal that lacks the advanced central nervous system of the great apes. There is an important distinction between a malicious rivalry and a natural ebb and flow of populations.
Clearly, we have no reason to dislike the eastern cottontail. But our discussion raises a larger question about our role in global animal populations. Why is any species introduced by humans to a new region “nonnative?”
When birds carry seeds to new locations and help species of plants grow and claim new territory, we don’t question a thing. (Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum refers to the dispersal of seeds in bird droppings as a “remarkable method” of “propagation.”) But humans have somehow separated themselves from this natural flow of plants and animals. As advanced animals, we assume, it would be wrong for us to exert any sort of control over the spread of populations.
Perhaps there’s a difference between conscious decisions and inadvertent reactions. Even humans, after all, don’t feel guilt when a few pesky burrs grab onto their pant cuffs and hitch a quick ride. So is the issue that while other species just happen to carry seeds along with them, humans have in some cases made calculated decisions to bring living things across oceans and over mountains?
Take kudzu. Everybody hates it. Kudzu kills trees, blocks sunlight, and has spread across the American continent with disturbing speed. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the vine was introduced to the U.S. as a “garden novelty” in the “late 19th century.” However, its spread accelerated during the Dust Bowl, when Congress created the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS grew “more than 70 million kudzu seedlings” in the hopes that kudzu could be used to quell erosion. The plan never really worked, but kudzu became common across much of the country and remains widespread to this day.
(How common, though? Smithsonian Magazine reports that kudzu is nowhere near as ubiquitous as most would presume. In fact, one study found that kudzu populations are shrinking across the United States. Even the worst invasive species, then, are usually restricted by some level of competition.)
This little-known example brings up an interesting point: kudzu was consciously introduced by humans, but not because the employees of the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia wanted to kill trees. So we’re forced to scale back our focus even more to circumstances when nonnative species are introduced consciously for the purpose of harming ecosystems.
And, as you might expect, those examples are unbelievably rare. In the case of the eastern cottontail, for example, there is no evidence that the species was introduced to reduce New England cottontail populations. Furthermore, it’s not even clear whether the species was introduced consciously. We can distinguish between the lofty settler and the ignorant bird all we like, but on some level, the difference is naught. Both the human and the fowl inadvertently allow for other species to blossom. Sometimes, those species compete with other species and, as dictated by the theory of natural selection, either succeed in an ecosystem or do not. But to suggest that birds help the environment, while humans damage it, is to give ourselves way too much credit. Quite frankly, we’re not smart enough to predict how a species may or may not ravage a new ecosystem. We’re just as clueless as the birds. And in this case, that ignorance may be a good thing, for at the very least, it clears us of some responsibility. We’re not immoral; we’re just stupid.
Even the history of Homo sapiens is replete with competition. We are the only remaining species of human, which is a polite way of saying that we killed off the competition millions and millions of years ago. It may not have been conscious, but it happened, and our survival serves as yet another example of the simple beauty of evolution.
So let’s stop blaming ourselves for a process that is completely natural. We are animals, and nothing we do can be logically qualified as “artificial” or “unnatural.” As developed as we are, and as cruel as we can be to the natural world around us, our cul-de-sacs and skyscrapers are, on some level, a part of that natural world. They’ve just been made by a pretty unprecedented creature.
Natural selection is the great equalizer. Humans, birds, rabbits, bacteria: all experience the same external pressures and are forced to compete with other individuals and species for survival. It is illogical to attribute some sort of agency, whether positive or negative, to any animal for its survival. On some level, all living species are meek, brainless things cowering in fear of the big, emotionless world. All living species exist at the mercy of evolution and competition, whatever those cold, abstract terms are meant to signify. As Charles Darwin put it, “man with all his noble qualities...still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”
We are apes, after all.