Index of Species Information

WILDLIFE SPECIES:  Sigmodon hispidus


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sigmodon hispidus
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION : Sullivan, Janet. 1995. Sigmodon hispidus. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].
ABBREVIATION : SIHI COMMON NAMES : hispid cotton rat cotton rat TAXONOMY : The currently accepted scientific name for the hispid cotton rat is Sigmodon hispidus Say and Ord. It is a member of the family Muridae subfamily Cricetinae. There are currently 25 accepted subspecies including the type subspecies [20]. ORDER : Rodentia CLASS : Mammal FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS : None OTHER STATUS : Information on state- and province-level protection status of animals in the United States and Canada is available at NatureServe, although recent changes in status may not be included.


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sigmodon hispidus
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION : The hispid cotton rat ranges from southern Virginia and North Carolina west through Tennessee, northern Missouri, Kansas, and extreme southern Nebraska to southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona; south to the Gulf Coast; and south to northern South America [20].  It does not occur on the coastal plain of North Carolina nor in the mountains of Virginia.  Disjunct populations occur in southeastern Arizona and extreme southeastern California into Baja California Norte [63].  It is fairly recent in Kansas, having appeared within the last 50 years [53]. ECOSYSTEMS : FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine FRES14 Oak-pine FRES15 Oak-hickory FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress FRES38 Plains grasslands FRES39 Prairie FRES41 Wet grasslands STATES :
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :     7  Lower Basin and Range    13  Rocky Mountain Piedmont    14  Great Plains KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :    K069  Bluestem-grama prairie    K076  Blackland prairie    K079  Palmetto prairie    K081  Oak savanna    K082  Mosaic of K074 and K100    K083  Cedar glades    K084  Cross Timbers    K088  Fayette prairie    K089  Black Belt    K091  Cypress savanna    K110  Northeastern oak-pine forest    K111  Oak-hickory-pine forest    K112  Southern mixed forest    K113  Southern floodplain forest    K114  Pocosin    K115  Sand pine scrub    K116  Subtropical pine forest SAF COVER TYPES :     45  Pitch pine     46  Eastern redcedar     68  Mesquite     69  Sand pine     70  Longleaf pine     71  Longleaf pine-scrub oak     73  Southern redcedar     74  Cabbage palmetto     75  Shortleaf pine     76  Shortleaf pine-oak     78  Virginia pine-oak     79  Virginia pine     80  Loblolly pine-shortleaf pine     81  Loblolly pine     82  Loblolly pine-hardwood     83  Longleaf pine-slash pine     84  Slash pine     85  Slash pine-hardwood     97  Atlantic white-cedar     98  Pond pine    105  Tropical hardwoods    110  Black oak    111  South Florida slash pine    242  Mesquite SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES :    217  Wetlands    422  Riparian    701  Alkali sacaton-tobosagrass    717  Little bluestem-Indiangrass-Texas wintergrass    718  Mesquite-grama    727  Mesquite-buffalograss    731  Cross timbers-Oklahoma    732  Cross timbers-Texas (little bluestem-post oak)    801  Savanna    802  Missouri prairie    804  Tall fescue    808  Sand pine scrub    809  Mixed hardwood and pine    810  Longleaf pine-turkey oak hills    811  South Florida flatwoods    812  North Florida flatwoods    813  Cutthroat seeps    814  Cabbage palm flatwoods    815  Upland hardwood hammocks    816  Cabbage palm hammocks    817  Oak hammocks    820  Everglades flatwoods PLANT COMMUNITIES : Hispid cotton rats occur in mesquite (Prosopis spp.) bosques in Arizona and New Mexico [41].  On the Coastal Plain hispid cotton rats occupy the periphery of central ponds and more distant ecotonal areas of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) swamps [21].  Hispid cotton rats are abundant in fallow rice fields in Texas, primarily near heavily overgrown canalbanks and levees [2]. In Florida hispid cotton rats are common in sabal palm (Sabal palmetto)-coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) savanna [28].  In the Southeast hispid cotton rats prefer grassy understories of fire-maintained loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)-shortleaf pine (P. echinata) and longleaf pine (P. palustris)-slash pine (P. elliottii) stands [34]. In Florida sand pine (P. clausa) scrub has been invaded by hispid cotton rats for short periods.  Reasons for the invasion were not clear but were probably related to increased population densities in nearby optimum habitat (pine flatwoods with a dense ground cover of grasses and herbs).  Sand pine scrub has little ground cover and is marginal habitat for hispid cotton rats [66].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sigmodon hispidus
TIMING OF MAJOR LIFE HISTORY EVENTS : Diurnal and Annual Activity:  Some studies have suggested that hispid cotton rats are mainly nocturnal, but activity has been observed at all hours.  Activity patterns appear to be influenced by both biotic and abiotic factors.  Hispid cotton rats are active year-round [6]. Breeding Season:  Hispid cotton rat populations usually exhibit a bimodal breeding season, with peak litter production occurring in late spring and in late summer-early fall [6].  Rose [67] reported reproductive peaks in March and June for hispid cotton rats; 100 percent of trapped females were pregnant from March through July, but none were breeding in November and December.  They do not breed in the coldest winter months.  In Kansas breeding is restricted to the frost-free months [6]. Nest Building:  A nest is constructed by the female either on the ground surface or in a burrow.  Nests are cup- to ball-shaped and woven of grasses [6].  Hispid cotton rats in the northern parts of their range make nests that are thicker and denser, but not larger, than those of southern hispid cotton rats [58]. Gestation and Development of Young:  Gestation in hispid cotton rats lasts approximately 27 days.  Litter sizes range from 1 to 15 young, with larger litters more typical of northern populations and also of late-season litters.  Neonates are well developed; they are mobile and lightly furred but the eyes are not open.  The eyes open approximately 18 to 36 hours after birth.  Hispid cotton rats are weaned in 10 to 15 days and reach minimum adult size by about 41 days [7,68]. Productivity:  Some male hispid cotton rats are sexually mature by 60 days, some females are receptive by 30 to 40 days.  The earliest recorded pregnancy was at 38 days [7,68].  Hispid cotton rats have been noted as one of the most prolific mammals in the Southeast.  Females bear two to several litters per year depending on latitude and local weather [63].  Females mate within 24 hours of giving birth [6]. Longevity:  In Kansas remnant prairie very few hispid cotton rats were recaptured after 8 months [15]. Population Fluctuation:  Hispid cotton rat populations are largely sedentary; population density depends mainly on current reproductive effort and not as strongly on immigration [29].  In Kansas remnant prairie hispid cotton rat population density was highest in fall and early winter and lowest in spring and early summer [15].  In the northernmost parts of hispid cotton rat range, severe weather is associated with rapid hispid cotton rat population declines and local extinctions [43].  In Kansas most hispid cotton rat mortality was associated with severe weather in March and April.  Populations in the northern part of hispid cotton rat range experience dramatic declines in the nonbreeding season.  In many areas local extinction is frequent [52].  In Georgia hispid cotton rat spring abundance in old fields was lowest following drought and extreme winter cold.  The reductions in hispid cotton rat populations were associated with sharp declines in vegetative biomass and cover [37]. Effects of Predation:  In Georgia a density of 15 hispid cotton rats per acre was considered the predator-limited carrying capacity.  Mammalian predators did not have a substantial effect on hispid cotton rat population density.  At densities higher than 15 per acre mortality was high; below 15 hispid cotton rats per acre predator-caused mortality was low [55].  Schnell [55] concluded that when diverse and mobile predators are present they are more important than food, social interaction, or weather in limiting hispid cotton rat density.  Also in Georgia, 1-acre field enclosures protected from avian predators (covered with a net) were monitored for the effect of avian predators on breeding hispid cotton rat populations.  The presence of the cover had no effect on seasonal recruitment or spring-summer mortality; however, autumn-winter mortality was greatly reduced with the cover in place.  It was therefore suggested that avian predators are more important than mammalian predators.  In addition, it was concluded that nonbreeding (winter) populations suffer substantial losses from predation whereas breeding populations are either able to compensate by replacing lost individuals, are less vulnerable to predation, or both [64]. PREFERRED HABITAT : Hispid cotton rats occupy a wide variety of habitats within their range but are not randomly distributed among microhabitats.  They are strongly associated with grassy patches that have some shrub overstory and they have little or no affinity for dicot-dominated patches [26,27].  Habitat use and preference by hispid cotton rats usually appears to depend on the density of monocots.  However, some studies are equivocal on the importance of other vegetation [16].  For example, hispid cotton rats may respond favorably to a high percentage of dicots in a stand if cover remains optimal.  In Kansas hispid cotton rats increased on root-plowed prairie that experienced an increase in the diversity and biomass of early-successional forbs [19].  Also see discussion of Oklahoma savanna in HABITAT-RELATED FIRE EFFECTS. Male hispid cotton rats exhibit a lower degree of habitat selectivity than females.  In Texas males were found on different habitat types (grassy, shrubby, and mixed) approximately in proportion to availability; female hispid cotton rats tended to choose mixed habitats more often than expected based on availability [7]. Habitat use varies with season and breeding status.  In Texas grassy areas with some shrubs were preferred in spring and areas with more shrubby cover were preferred in fall [27]. Grassland Habitats:  In Kansas remnant prairie the preferred habitat of hispid cotton rats has dense undergrowth and an upper layer of protective vegetation such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)/kochia (Kochia scoparia)/annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) [15].  Hispid cotton rats prefer grassy clearings, croplands, overgrown fields, and overgrown roadsides and right-of-ways [42].  In Kansas prairies hispid cotton rats occur at relatively high abundance in ungrazed uplands and sandy mixed-grass native prairie, but also prefer disturbed areas. Kaufman and others [24] suggested that the use of disturbed areas was probably important in the recent invasion of hispid cotton rats into north-central Kansas from the northern presettlement limit of their range in Oklahoma.  On Texas rangelands hispid cotton rats appeared to respond to increased biomass of standing crop and increases in the proportion of the standing crop in potential food plants such as bristlegrasses (Setaria spp.).  Hispid cotton rat density was four times greater on areas planted to exotic grasses including King Range bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum) and buffel grass (Enchrus ciliaris) than on native range dominated by windmill grass (Chloris spp.) and Texas wintergrass (Stipa leucotricha) [19]. Succession in Grasslands:  In northeastern Kansas hispid cotton rats occurred at high population densities in tallgrass prairie (dominated by perennial grasses); population density declined to levels too low to accurately estimate over 28 years of succession to brush and trees [14]. They are occasionally found in habitats dominated by early successional grassland species (i.e., annual grasses and forbs) [9]. Woodland Habitats:  Hispid cotton rats occur in grassy areas or early-successional habitats within open woods.  In the Southeast hispid cotton rat population density increases with the density of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and other low growing plants, but declines with succession to brush and trees [29].  In Texas pine-hardwood forests, hispid cotton rats were captured most often in narrow streamside management zones which have more light and thus more ground cover, and slightly less often in wider zones [1].  In central Louisiana longleaf pine-slash pine stands hispid cotton rats were captured in sawtimber, sapling, and regeneration stands but not in pole-sized timber; stands with surface cover were more likely to support hispid cotton rats. Pole-sized timber is dense, little light reaches the ground, and surface cover is minimal [46].  In Louisiana and Mississippi hispid cotton rats were more numerous in cut than in uncut bottomland hardwoods.  They were also more numerous in cottonwood (Populus spp.) plantations than in uncut cottonwood stands [65].  In northern Georgia intensive site preparation following clearcutting of pine-hardwood mixtures increases forage production and increased numbers of small mammals (presumably including hispid cotton rats) [11]. Importance of Climate:  In Colorado hispid cotton rats occupy semimoist areas with abundant grasses and weeds and appear to be restricted to relatively warm areas [39].  In New Mexico hispid cotton rats do not occur regularly in areas with a mean annual temperature lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 deg C) and a growing season shorter than 180 days [45].  In Trans-Pecos Texas hispid cotton rats occur at the warmer, low elevations in areas of moderate to dense grassy cover [54]. When water and wastewater are added to baldcypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) domes, small mammals including hispid cotton rat move to peripheral areas that are drier.  The rising water tables favor marsh rice rats (Oryzomys palustris) over hispid cotton rats [21]. Population Density:  Cameron and McClure [68] compiled reports of hispid cotton rat population densities.  The mean hispid cotton rat population density range for all studies was 5.3 to 31.1 rats per hectare. Population density ranges in Texas include 1 to 14 rats per hectare in coastal prairie, 17 to 84 rats per hectare in unmowed right-of-ways, 9 to 29 rats per hectare in old fields, 6 to 54 rats per hectare in abandoned fields, and 0.7 to 5 rats per hectare in grass-prickly-pear (Opuntia spp.).  In Florida population density ranges include 0 to 24 rats per hectare in sand pine scrub, 2 to 47 rats per hectare in pine flatwoods, and 27 to 94 rats per hectare in tropical hammock.  In Kansas hispid cotton rat density ranges were 0.2 to 21 rats per hectare in grassland [68]; the highest estimated density was 65.4 hispid cotton rats per hectare in favored habitat [15]. Habitat Patch Size:  In a study of the effects of habitat patchiness on movement, hispid cotton rats preferred only the largest patches which were 165 feet by 330 feet (50 x 100 m).  Patches were established by mowing strips between blocks of grasses.  Hispid cotton rats were present in intermediate numbers on medium sized patches which were 39.6 feet by 79.2 feet (12 x 24 m), but were so scarce on the smallest patches that their movement pattern could not be analyzed [10]. Home Range:  In Kansas remnant prairie the average annual home range of adult male hispid cotton rat was estimated as 0.969 acre (0.39 ha) and that of adult females as 0.543 acre (0.21 ha).  The greatest distance traveled by an adult male was 330 feet (100 m) and by an adult female was 250.9 feet (76.4 m) [15].  In Texas male hispid cotton rats also had larger home ranges than females.  Home ranges were larger in summer and winter than in spring and fall.  Home range size was positively correlated with body mass and negatively correlated with population density.  There was a relatively high degree of exclusivity (41%), indicating intolerance of conspecifics, particularly of the same sex [7].  In Texas hispid cotton rats found their original home ranges (homed) from displacements of up to 5,000 feet (1,500 m).  Returns were relatively high from displacements of up to 990 feet (300 m), suggesting that hispid cotton rats are familiar with the area within that distance. Hispid cotton rats released in areas with no cover homed better than hispid cotton rats released in typical hispid cotton rat habitat [8]. Spencer and others [69] used site fidelity as a measure of an individual's actual home range and concluded that hispid cotton rats have both single-day and multiday site fidelity and therefore establish true home ranges. COVER REQUIREMENTS : On the southern Coastal Plain hispid cotton rats use gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows for shelter in sandhill scrub dominated by longleaf pine, bluejack oak (Quercus incana) and sand post oak (Q. stellata ssp. margaretta) [35]. FOOD HABITS : Hispid cotton rats are omnivorous, but the major portion of their diet consists of green vegetation.  They occasionally consume insects and other small animals [63].  Field observations of hispid cotton rat diet indicate that preferred foods are the stems, foliage, and seeds of crop and wild plants [42].  Golley [18] reported that in the Southeast, perennial legumes and broomsedge comprised a large portion of the diet of hispid cotton rats.  They also consumed roots and tubers.  In Texas hispid cotton rat diets always included the lower green stems of grasses (which are relatively low in nutritive value); raspberries (Rubus spp.), privet (Ligustrum spp.) fruits, and leaves of fogfruits (Phyla spp.) were consumed as available [50]. PREDATORS : Hispid cotton rats are preyed on by many birds and reptiles, and by other mammals [63].  In Oklahoma hispid cotton rats were a major prey item in the diet of Swainson's hawks (Buteo swainsoni) [3].  In central Missouri hispid cotton rats comprised 19 percent of prey items in red-tailed hawk (B. jamaicensis) nests [62].  Hispid cotton rat remains comprised a substantial portion of short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) pellets in Arkansas [59].  Hispid cotton rats were the third most important prey item of red wolves (Canis rufus) in eastern Texas and Louisiana [56].  In North Carolina bobcats (Lynx rufus) consumed substantial numbers of hispid cotton rats [72].  Hispid cotton rats were a minor item in the diet of Florida panthers (Felis concolor coryi) [40].  In north-central Florida the only direct evidence of predation on hispid cotton rats was the presence of hispid cotton rat remains in a barred owl (Strix varia) pellet.  The authors also observed a corn snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) killing a hispid cotton rat just after the rat was released from a trap.  The snake apparently had been waiting on the runway where the trap had been set [38]. MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : The hispid cotton rat is an economic pest in the Southeast where it causes damage to sweet potato, corn, peanut, tomato, sugar cane, squash, carrot, and cotton crops.  Hispid cotton rats also take northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) eggs and chicks and sometimes reduce northern bobwhite productivity [42,47,63]. In old fields abandoned for 3 years in Georgia, hispid cotton rats consumed up to 2 percent per month of the standing crop of vegetation when at peak population densities.  Since hispid cotton rats clip more vegetation than they consume, they also accounted for 10 percent of the monthly litter input. At lower densities hispid cotton rats are relatively unimportant in consumption and litter production [36]. Hispid cotton rats are a reservoir for some human diseases including rabies, Chagas' disease, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis [6].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Sigmodon hispidus
DIRECT FIRE EFFECTS ON ANIMALS : Mortality from fire is directly caused by burns, heat stress, asphyxiation, physiological stress, trampling by other animals, or predation while fleeing fire.  Indirect causes include changes in quality and quantity of food, nest site availability, predation, parasitism, disease, increased competition, and social interactions [24].  Eastman [70] suggested that the dark, grizzled coloration of hispid cotton rats helps protect them from predation after fire (it is also adaptive coloration for a grassland rodent) [22]. Komarek [30] reported that fire occasionally kills hispid cotton rats though they largely avoid fire by going into burrows or moving away from flames.  Over the course of 225 prescribed fall and spring fires in grasslands, he never found a dead or injured juvenile hispid cotton rat even though he examined hundreds of recently burned or burning hispid cotton rat nests.  He reported that the squeaking of hispid cotton rats could be heard as the rats moved ahead of a fire.  He often observed hispid cotton rats leading or carrying their young away from a fire. They have also been observed running across firelines and returning to smoking burns without injury [30].  Odum and others [48] reported that the immediate reaction of hispid cotton rats to fire is to move to unburned areas with protective cover.  They return to burned areas as soon as foliage cover develops. In southern Florida hispid cotton rat mortality from fire may be related to the rate of fire spread.  In a muhlenbergia (Muhlenbergia spp.) prairie Taylor [60] found one carcass of a hispid cotton rat (along with carcasses of other small mammals) after a fast-spreading, severe fire, but none after a slow-spreading fire. HABITAT RELATED FIRE EFFECTS : The response of hispid cotton rats to fire is usually negative in the very short term, but populations usually recover rapidly with the recovery of vegetative cover.  Hispid cotton rats have been rated as fire-negative, since they are associated with plant debris and are foliage eaters [24], but they are often reported as increasing after fire.  Bock and Bock [71] reported a decrease in hispid cotton rat population after combined wildfires and prescribed fire in big sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) grasslands reduced big sacaton cover but stimulated growth of forbs and other grasses.  Hispid cotton rats could be classified as fire-positive since the lush vegetation produced during the first few growing seasons following fire often supports relatively large populations; hispid cotton rat populations are often highest in the first few growing seasons after fire [22].  In Kansas tallgrass prairie hispid cotton rats were captured most often in burned lowlands in the fall following a late winter prescribed fire.  There were also large numbers of hispid cotton rat in transition areas that had been burned 1 to 3 years before rats were censused.  In lowland areas vegetation on burned patches was taller and denser than on unburned patches.  On upland sites there was no significant difference between the number of captures on unburned and burned sites, but there were slightly more captures on the unburned site [49].  Ash from prairie fires had no effect on the palatability of seed in captive feeding trials [51]. In Oklahoma blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica)-post oak (Q. stellata) savanna, relative densities of hispid cotton rats were greatest on study plots that were treated with herbicide to reduce shrubs, then burned annually to maintain grassy cover.  Plots that were untreated succeeded to dense brush and young trees and had reduced numbers of hispid cotton rats.  Peak production of hispid cotton rats occurred in the second year after herbicide treatment, the year of peak herbaceous dicot productivity.  Hispid cotton rat numbers declined with repeated annual burning; dicot density also decreased.  This decrease may have been an important factor in the hispid cotton rat decline since dicots provide higher quality forage than grass.  However, overall vegetative productivity declined on the plots over the same time period and may have been a more important factor than the amount of dicots present [44]. In the Southeast open pine woodlands with surface cover of broomsedge and herbs usually have mid-size populations of hispid cotton rats.  The open condition of these woods is maintained by frequent fire.  Hispid cotton rat populations peak 3 to 4 years after fire but decline with longer intervals between fires [29,30].  Komarek [29] concluded that frequent (annual or biennial) fire keeps hispid cotton rats from becoming too abundant but also provides better habitat than no fire.  In southeastern loblolly pine-shortleaf pine stands hispid cotton rats are the dominant herbivorous rodent the first and second years after fire. The early brush stage (postfire years 3 and 4) also supports abundant hispid cotton rats, but hispid cotton rats decline thereafter.  No hispid cotton rats were reported for plots that had not experienced fire for 19 years [34].  In Georgia longleaf-slash pine forests that were burned annually in spring typically supported hispid cotton rat populations [5].  In north-central Florida pine flatwoods, hispid cotton rats were not present on burned areas in the first 2 months following December prescribed fire that burned all surface litter and vegetation. Hispid cotton rats returned to the burned areas in spring; hispid cotton rat abundance was greatest in the fall following the prescribed fire. The first hispid cotton rats to be captured on the burn were subadult males, but they were followed shortly thereafter by other hispid cotton rats.  Females on the burn area apparently produced two litters each during the first postfire growing season [38]. In Georgia fallow fields that had been cultivated for millet were censused for small mammals before and after prescribed fire.  In March approximately one-half acre of one of the plots was litter-burned.  Six pairs of hispid cotton rats were introduced into two 1-acre enclosures in April; by September there were 70 hispid cotton rats in each enclosure.  In the first few weeks after the hispid cotton rats were introduced to the enclosures they concentrated their activity on the unburned portion of the plot where cover was greatest, but as the season progressed they moved onto the burned area.  Hispid cotton rats on the burned area gained slightly more weight than those on the unburned areas, which suggested that there was more and/or better forage on the burned areas [48]. FIRE USE : Komarek [29] stated that northern bobwhite management areas could be kept from becoming overrun with hispid cotton rats through the use of frequent (annual to biennial) prescribed fire in fall or spring.  This management technique maintains northern bobwhite habitat and reduces hispid cotton rat habitat to some extent.  Longer fire-free intervals are more detrimental to northern bobwhite populations than is predation by hispid cotton rats [29,30]. An extensive body of research has been published on fire effects on animals in semidesert grassland, oak savanna, and Madrean oak woodlands of southeastern Arizona, including the response of hispid cotton rats to fire. See the Research Project Summary of this work for more information on hispid cotton rats and more than 100 additional species of small mammals, birds, grasshoppers, and herbaceous and woody plant species.

References for species: Sigmodon hispidus

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