The Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri) was named for Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine and the organization famous for its “Playboy Bunny” hostesses.
Rosanna Tursi, a master’s student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Central Florida, is using population genetics to aid in the conservation of the rabbits, which were declared endangered in 1990, according to a UCF news release. It is estimated that there are less than 300 of the Hefneri rabbits left in the wild.
Photo of “Playboy Bunny” Sylvilagus palustris hefneri courtesy Rosanna Tursi
Hefneri, the most recently recognized subspecies of the marsh rabbit, is small with short, dark brown fur and a grayish-white belly.
“Discovered in 1984, the subspecies was named in honor of Hefner after his organization donated money to support fieldwork on the rabbits,” UCF says in a news release.
“Hefneri live in an island environment and are dependent on specific grasses and plants for feeding, nesting and shelter. Population growth and development in the [Florida] Lower Keys has led to the death of the bunnies at the hands of vehicles or domestic animals. Their natural habitat also is being destroyed.”
“The loss of genetic diversity can have long-term repercussions by affecting the evolutionary potential of the species,” Tursi said.
Photo courtesy Rosanna Tursi
UCF Assistant Professor Eric Hoffman and Philip Hughes, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in Big Pine Key, landed a grant to study the bunnies, the university release says. “Tursi joined the team and is conducting fieldwork this summer in the Everglades and Florida Keys. The USFWS is interested in Tursi’s finding because it wants to prevent the bunnies’ from becoming extinct.”
Plans to Relocate the Bunnies
The FWS hopes to identify rabbits from the most genetically diverse populations, relocate them and create a new population in a habitat where the bunnies are less likely to be disturbed, the university added.
The project was a perfect thesis subject for Tursi, who earned a degree in Molecular Biology, Microbiology and Biotechnology from Florida Atlantic University before enrolling at UCF, the university added.
“Nature and conservation of wildlife have always been my passion, and I wanted to use my molecular and genetic knowledge to help endangered species,” Tursi said.
Hoffman said Tursi’s work could certainly help keep the species viable.
“Our hope is to both characterize the amount of diversity in the Keys populations and determine which rabbit populations would provide the best rabbits to found new translocated populations set up by the USFWS,” Hoffman said.
Tursi is currently working with another marsh rabbit subspecies, Sylvilagus palustris paludicola, which is native to South Florida and the Everglades.
“She is using hair follicles gathered from mainland rabbits to extract DNA,” UCF says. “Once sample collection is finished, Tursi will conduct DNA analysis and compare the diversities of the paludicola and hefneri over the next four or five months.”