Big research for a tiny animal

This pygmy rabbit is part of a study at Washington State University’s Small Mammal Research Facility in Pullman. These rabbits only grow to be about 1 pound in weight.

A collaborative research team made up of personnel from four area universities is determined to divine the well-kept secrets of one of the Northwest's more mysterious creatures - the pygmy rabbit.

"People knew about them, but there are very small populations patchily distributed in very specific habitats: deep soil and sagebrush. There were field studies and master's dissertations, but not much was known," said Lisa Shipley, Washington State University's principle investigator on the project.

These tiny lagomorphs max out at about 1 pound and are dependent on the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem where they make their homes, said Janet Rachlow, professor in Fish and Wildlife Sciences at the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources. Sagebrush steppe is a dry, treeless, flat ecosystem dominated by the aromatic shrub it is named for. Sagebrush steppe exists in the Western U.S. and Canada and, despite its lifeless appearance, provides habitats for many animals.

It is also a landscape that is under threat by invasive weeds and wildfires.

"Sagebrush steppe is declining and being degraded and a lot of people don't pay attention to sagebrush," Shipley said. "Old growth forests had a big time and everyone can really get behind it but sometimes people ignore the other habitats that have just as many problems, especially in Washington."

While pygmy rabbits are not endangered in Idaho, there are concerns about the species' future due to the fragility of its habitat, Rachlow said.

As part of a series of studies that have been ongoing for more than a decade, researchers at the UI, WSU, Idaho State University and Boise State University have teamed up for research in both the field and the lab to find the information that may help keep the species in good form.

"They were petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act but did not get listed partly because there was not enough information about them," Shipley said.

So far, the studies have produced results.

"We still don't know as much about them as other species," Rachlow said. "But we know a lot more than we did 14 years ago."

Rachlow, whose work takes place in the field, is preparing for a new twist on the investigation - one that includes both unmanned aircraft and a special camera that can record more detail than traditional observation.

"These bushes can be the same species and right beside each other, but the rabbits will eat from one and not the other. The human eye can't see a difference," Rachlow said.

The hope is the camera can.

Instead of using traditional technology that records light in three colors - red, yellow and blue - the researchers will use multiple colors in order to determine what it is about the chemical makeup of certain plants that makes them so attractive.

While the use of drones gave the researchers some additional hoops to jump through with the Federal Aviation Administration, the work is worth it, as the small, unmanned helicopter, flown 25-30 feet above the landscape, will not disturb habitat.

Across the state line at WSU, another group is at work to learn about the same rabbits, but in a different environment.

As a species of pygmy rabbit is endangered in Washington, WSU works with captive rabbits of a nonendangered species to determine their choices and preferences as far as safety from predators, foods and shelter.

"What we learn is very useful to understanding this restoration project," Shipley said. "Those habitats are under threat, the animals that depend on them are under threat, and we're trying to develop new ways to understand what they require in the habitat and then hopefully what we can do to protect it."

Shanon Quinn can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to

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