The Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus)
Common Names: bush rabbit, snowshoe rabbit, varying hare
Species: Lepus americanus
General Description The Snowshoe hare is a medium-sized member of the family Leporidae, to which there are 15 subspecies. It has a rusty brown or greyish coat in the summer, with a black middorsal line and a white underside. There are black tips on the ears, and the face and legs are a light brown. In the winter, the fur turns a snowy white (except for the black eyelids and tips of the ears). The molt takes about 72 days to complete and there is some evidence that it may be regulated by daylength. There also seems to be two separate sets of hair follicles, which result in both brown and white hairs. Males are typically smaller than females, the average weight being 1-2 kg. Head-body length is anywhere between 300 and 500mm, of which 39-52mm is the tail. The ears can be up to 70mm in length (from notch to tip). The long broad hind foot is where the snowshoe hare gets it’s name, as the feet act like snowshoes in the winter snow. The hind foot can be anywhere from 117mm to 147 mm in length, and is densely furred with stiff hares which form the “snowshoe”. The most obvious sign of the presence of snowshoe hare populations are damaged trees due to the consumption of bark and new growth. Their presence is also noted by small footpaths, or “roads” which they make by continually taking the same route through the forest vegetation and snow.
Geographical Distribution and Habitat Requirements The Snowshoe hare is found only in North America. Throughout New Brunswick, they inhabit open fields, swamps, riverbanks, bogs, coniferous forests and lowlands. Outside of New Brunswick, they have been found living on tundra (in the Arctic) and in temperate forests throughout Canada, particularly the Northwest. Snowshoe hares have also been found as far south as New Mexico. Specific habitat requirements include areas covered in low lying brush and new growth, which provides an abundance of food and cover. These conditions are usually created by recurrent fires, which are common in New Brunswick. In the absence of recurrent fires, the populations tend to be lower.
General Biology The diet of the snowshoe hare changes with the changing seasons. In the summer the hares feed on grasses, asters, wild berries, wild flowers, clover, horsetails and new growth. In the winter, their diet consists of twigs, barks and evergreens. The snowshoe hare also practises coprophagy, in which certain feces is reinjested to gain all the nutrient content possible. Snowshoe hares are generally solitary, but they also live at high desities, sharing overlapping home ranges. The home ranges usually don’t exceed 8ha. They are nocturnal animals, mostly active during the night, but are also seen active during cloudy days. Snowshoe hares are seasonal breeders, but are also polyoestrous (breeding more than once in the season). The female will retreat to a birthing area, prepared earlier with packed down grass. The average litter size is two to four young. The litter is born completely furred, with open eyes and able to locomote. This is unique to hares, as “true rabbits” are born helpless. A female may have up to four litters in one year, gestation lasting 36 days. The female is very attentive to the young, which are also called “leverets”. There is a 10-year cycle of snowshoe hare populations, in which populations reach a maximum density. There has been much research done to determine the causes of this phenomenon. Research by Charles J. Krebs and his co-workers (1995) indicate that population cycles of the snowshoe hare in the boreal forest are a result of the interaction between food supplies and predation, particularly over the winter season. Snowshoe hares are good swimmers. They have been observed to swim across small rivers and lakes, and also to enter water to avoid a predator attack. They are very good at escaping predators, and sometimes use the “freeze” tecnique, in which they stay very still and attempt to blend in with their surrounding environment. At top speed, a snowshoe hare can run at 27 miles per hour and cover up to ten feet in one leap. They also dart back and forth in different directions to confuse their attacker, which is highly effective. The main predators of the hares are Great Horned Owls, Red Fox, Lynx and Coyote. Other risks to hare populations are disease, weather and nutritional stress. They are sometimes hunted by humans for meat, but they are seldom hunted for their fur.
Conservation The snowshoe hare has a secure conservation status. They are common throughout their ranges and their rapid reproduction allows the populations to stabilize, even in the event of a cyclic decline caused by shorter breeding seasons and low young and adult survival.