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Rabbit tracks in the sand

Commonly Confused Mammals of Florida

Mammals are what most people think about when they think of natural wildlife, and Florida is home to a multitude of different species. Florida’s mammals come in all shapes and sizes, from bears and deer to squirrels and mice! While many of our mammals are easy to identify, there are a few that can be confused with one another. Being able to recognize and identify these species can be difficult, but with some practice and information, identifying these animals will be a piece of cake. Below are three species comparisons of some commonly confused mammal species:

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit vs Marsh Rabbit
Dark colored, small eared, small tailed marsh rabbit. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Dark colored, small eared, small tailed marsh rabbit. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Lighter colored, large eared, white tailed Eastern cottontail rabbit. Photo Credit: Lara Milligan

Lighter colored, large eared, white tailed Eastern cottontail rabbit. Photo Credit: Lara Milligan

The Eastern cottontail rabbit is the most common type of rabbit you will find in Florida. They live in open areas feeding on wild vegetation and it is not uncommon to see them roaming around in your neighborhood. They are most active around dusk or dawn trying to avoid predators while feeding.

The marsh rabbit is less likely to be seen as they tend to live in wetland habitats and stay in the brush to avoid predators. Due to where they live these rabbits are actually incredibly strong swimmers and are not afraid of going into the water.

The easiest way to tell these two apart is by looking at the tails. The Eastern cottontail will have a showy white tail (hence the name), while the marsh rabbit has an almost hidden brown tail. If the tail is not clearly visible then check out the ears, the ears of the Eastern cottontail are significantly larger than that of the marsh rabbit. This goes for overall size too; the Eastern cottontail is larger than the marsh rabbit. Also if you only catch a glimpse of it generally the fur color of the marsh rabbit is darker with brownish black fur compared to the lighter, peppered black, brown, and white pattern of the Eastern cottontail.

If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video that highlights the differences.

Florida Panther vs Bobcat
Smaller, spotted, and bobbed tailed bobcat. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Smaller, spotted, and bobbed tailed bobcat. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Larger, solid coated, very long tailed Florida panther. Photo Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Larger, solid coated, very long tailed Florida panther. Photo Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Every once in a while, Lara will get a phone call or email from someone indicated they think they saw a Florida panther. Knowing the rarity of this, especially in Pinellas County, Lara will often talk through details with her clients to conclude that it was in fact probably a bobcat. Here are some tips to keep in mind for telling the two apart. While they are both large, wild cats, they do have some significant differences:

The Florida panther is a large cat that can get up to 150 pounds! Adults have a yellowish brown coat while the kittens are spotted. The Florida panther is an endangered species and is an incredibly rare sight to see. Making it even tougher to see is these animals are nocturnal, being most active at night. These large mammals live in a variety of habitats; however, they need large amounts of land in order to thrive. With continued development continuous large tracts of land a very limited in the state, causing great declines in the Florida panther populations.

The bobcat is much smaller, only getting to about 35 pounds and has a spotted coat both as an adult and kitten. This animal is also nocturnal making it extremely difficult to see, however the bobcat is not a listed species (not threatened or endangered) so you are more likely to see a bobcat than you are a Florida panther. Bobcats feed on small prey and are fantastic hunters. They like to stay in thick cover for hunting and can be found resting in the branches of trees.

To tell these two cats apart take note of these characteristics: A Florida panther can be up to twice the size of a bobcat, so if it’s a big cat it’s most likely the Florida panther. Also, the fur of the Florida panther is yellowish-brown while the fur of the bobcat is spotted. One other thing to note if you catch a glimpse of one of these is their tail. Tails of the Florida panther are very long, often over two feet in length! Tails of bobcats are much shorter, hence the “bob” in the name. Their tails are usually only 4-6 inches long. Although you are unlikely to see these animals in the wild you may see their footprints; the footprints of the Florida panther are almost twice the size (~3.5 inches) of the bobcats’ (~2 inches)!

Gray Squirrel vs Southern Fox Squirrel
Larger, black and pale orange gray squirrel in natural area. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Larger, black and pale orange gray southern fox squirrel in natural area. Photo Credit: Pinellas County Government.

Smaller gray squirrel with white belly on University of Florida campus. UF/IFAS Photo: Thomas Wright.

Smaller gray squirrel with white belly on University of Florida campus. UF/IFAS Photo: Thomas Wright.

The gray squirrel is 15-20 inches in size and has consistent gray backs and sides with white or gray bellies. These squirrels are the most common squirrel to find as they live basically anywhere. They thrive in suburban and urban areas and love to eat on the acorns of the variety of oak trees that can be found in these areas.

The southern fox squirrel is larger, 24-40 inches in size and the fur color is quite variable. It can be gray, tan, gray-brown, black-brown, or black with white, yellow, orange, or black bellies. The fox squirrel tends to live in pine/oak forests and is not as fond of urban areas as the gray squirrel. Southern fox squirrels are usually only spotted in natural or suburban areas. These squirrels tend to be more difficult to see but are definitely a treat if you do!

To tell these two apart look at the size of the squirrel. The gray squirrel will be noticeably smaller than the southern fox squirrel. Also take a look at the coloration of the squirrel itself. The color of gray squirrels does not vary much so if it does not look like a gray squirrel then it most likely is not! Both of these squirrels however are vital to the ecosystem as both of these squirrels eat acorns and tend to store these acorns in the ground. The ones that are forgotten about can grow to be young oak trees.

This blog was written by intern, Steven Krupka with edits by Lara Milligan. 

If you enjoyed this series and would like to read more about commonly confused plants and animals in Florida, you can find more here:
http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/global/tag/commonly-confused/
Sources:

http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw390

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw444