Snowshoe hares are forest-dwellers that prefer the thick cover of brushy undergrowth.
The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), also called the varying hare, or snowshoe rabbit, is a species of hare found in North America. It has the name "snowshoe" because of the large size of its hind feet. The animal's feet prevent it from sinking into the snow when it hops and walks.
Snowshoe hares live in the boreal forests of North America and are active year-round. They gain their curious name from their very large hind feet that are lined with stiff hairs that form a snowshoe, supporting their weight on the surface of the snow.
Snowshoe hare populations cycle in 8 to 11 year periods, and densities may fluctuate 5 to 25-fold during a cycle. The causes of the cyclic fluctuations of snowshoe hares are debated among scientists. Scientists have proposed many hypotheses to explain the changes in population size that lead to these cycles. These hypotheses usually center on food limitation, patterns of predation, and links between food supply and predation. Recent studies in Kluane National Park and Reserve, Yukon, Canada suggest that cyclic fluctuations of snowshoe hares probably result from an interaction between predation and food supplies.
The diet of snowshoe hares is diverse. In summer they eat herbaceous plants and the new growth of woody vegetation. In winter, they eat twigs, buds, and bark. Snowshoe hares browse heavily on vegetation and often leave behind well-defined browse-lines (often referred to as \\"hare lines\\"). Hares will also re-ingest their feces to extract all of the available nutrients from their food. Hares greatly influence the world around them, including the vegetation, predators, and other herbivores and omnivores that live in the same habitats. Hares browse heavily on vegetation. Browsing affects the growth of plants and stimulates plants to produce secondary compounds that make them unpalatable for hares and other omnivores.
The first mating of the year occurs in spring (March and April) and a litter of usually two to four young (leverets) is born about 35 days after mating. Hares produce two to three litters of young a year and females remate soon after the birth of a litter. Males and females have multiple mates throughout the year. Young hares move about soon after they are born and young snowshoe hares usually begin to breed a year after their birth. Reproductive rates vary by region and by year.
Hares are well adapted for escaping their predators. They have keen hearing and upon detecting a predator they often freeze in their tracks. This, in addition to their camouflage coloration, tends to be an effective means of avoiding predators.
The relationship between snowshoe hares and their year-round predators including lynx, great-horned owls, and northern goshawks is well documented. These and other predators such as golden eagles depend on snowshoe hares as a food source early in the nesting season. Across the boreal forest, the population size and reproductive success of many predators cycles with the abundance of hare.
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Snowshoe hares have an interesting adaptation that helps protect them against predators. Depending on the season, their fur can be a different color. During the winter, snowshoe hares are white, which helps them blend in with the snow. When the seasons change to spring and summer, snowshoe hares turn a reddish-brown.
The Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) is also called the ‘Varying Hare’. The snowshoe hare is found in alpine regions of North America, Alaska and Canada. The population of the snowshoe hare fluctuates tremendously on a roughly 10 year cycle, due to the availability of food and predator interactions.
- Special Concerns
Although closely related to the more abundant cottontail, the snowshoe is not a true rabbit. A hare's digestive tract differs structurally from that of a rabbit, and newborn hares are precocial (fairly well developed) in contrast to the hairless, blind cottontail young. Snowshoes are about 19 inches in length and weigh 3 to 5 pounds, with males generally 10 percent heavier than females. Their body configuration is similar to the cottontail's, although the snowshoe has longer ears, larger feet and a rangier build. In summer, a snowshoe is dark – in winter, white. In the dark phase, its fur is gray-brown, darker on the rump and down the middle of the back, the throat buffy and the tail dark brown above and white beneath. In autumn, the dark hairs gradually fall out and white hairs replace them. This molt is irregular and might occur in patchwork fashion, but it usually begins on the feet and ears and works upward and toward the rear until the entire pelt is white (except the ear tips,...
As with many Pennsylvania small-game species, habitat change has caused varying hare populations to decline in recent years. After the nearly total logging of our state's forests in the late 1800s and early 1900s, brushy growth and saplings provided perfect hare habitat, and the population boomed. Today, maturing forests and a large number of deer — which compete for many of the same food sources — combine to restrict the snowshoe population. Canada, part of the northern United States and Alaska are present strongholds of the varying hare. Its range extends into the northeastern U.S. in mountainous areas. In the Rockies, varying hares range south to central New Mexico. Hares are found in Pennsylvania in parts of the Allegheny Mountains, and on high plateaus in the northwest and the Pocono region. As Pennsylvania is the southernmost part of the species' eastern range, the varying hare is not abundant in our state; even if habitat were excellent, it's unlikely that snowshoes would bec...
Snowshoes in Pennsylvania inhabit mixed deciduous forests with conifers and escape cover, such as rhododendron and mountain laurel. They favor younger brushy areas, those logged or burned seven to 10 years ago. Hares also live in swamps where cedar, spruce or tamarack grow. Dense stands of aspen or poplar, interspersed with pines, might support hares. In Pennsylvania, high country such as ridge tops, mountains, high swamps and plateaus harbor most hares. As do cottontail rabbits, snowshoes move into forestland opened up by fires, high winds, ice storms and clearcutting. While cottontails build up good populations in clear-cut areas in one or two years, snowshoes — with a lower reproductive rate and different food and cover requirements — need up to seven years to take hold. Browse cutting can help snowshoes by bringing edible twigs within reach and encouraging the growth of shrubs, sprouts and seedlings. Planting conifers, particularly spruce, and cutting tall trees to keep them fro...
The timing of color change and the response of hares to climate change is a concern for Pennsylvania's hare populations. When a hare has a white coat and the habitat around it is brown, it is described as a hare in mismatch. In recent years, warmer weather has reduced the duration of snow cover thereby reducing the ability of a white hare to blend into its brown habitat. Mismatched hares are likely subject to increased predation rates. The hemlock woolly adelgid is causing significant decline of Pennsylvania's hemlock groves. Hemlock groves are thought to be valuable hare habitat because they provide nutritional value and important thermal cover in winter. As hemlock groves decline, hare populations may be detrimentally impacted.
The large back paws of the Snowshoe Hare help it move through snow more easily, and it can reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour (MPH). The Snowshoe Hare will also change its fur from brown and grey in the summer months to white in the winter, while a rabbit will stay the same color.
Snowshoe hares are residents of middle and higher elevation habitats within the Klamath range, southern Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada south to Mariposa, Mono, and Madera counties. Snowshoes have been reported also from the Warner Mountains in northeastern California.
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