Description: The large hind feet, long ears, short tail, and typical rabbit shape distinguish this snowshoe hare, the only “rabbit” throughout much of the Adirondack Park. From mid-December until late April, the soft dense fur is mainly white with only the black-rimmed ears and dark eyes conspicuous against a background of snow. However, the underfur and a sprinkling of hairs on the ears and feet are gray or brown. The summer coat is yellowish to cinnamon brown above; the chin, tail, and lower parts are white to grayish white, and the ears are tipped with black. A small white blaze is present on the forehead of some individuals. The seasonal color change, which takes place over a period of about 70 days, is a result of molting, and is largely controlled by day-length. A black color phase is rare. Adults weigh 1.2-2.0 kg (3-4.5 lb) and are about 51 cm (20 in) in total length.
Range and Habitat: The snowshoe hare occurs from the treeline of North America south into the northern U.S. and the Northeast. The range extends farther south in the Appalachians to eastern Tennessee, to New Mexico in the Rockies, and into California and western Nevada in the Sierra Nevada. In the Adirondacks, this species lives at all elevations wherever conifer swamps, lowland conifer, and mountain conifer forests offer suitable habitat.
This habitat must provide: (1) dense stands of conifers 2.4-4.9 m (8-16 ft) in height for daytime sanctuary, i.e., resting places that restrict the vision of predators; (2) woody browse which is critical during the winter months; and (3) conifers 4.9-15.2 m (16-50 ft) in height that provide travel corridors between resting and feeding areas when these are separated.
Michigan Snowshoe Hare: Researchers have concluded that Michigan’s snowshoe hare population is declining at an alarming rate, and they are linking this problem partially to the effects of climate change.
Gary Roloff, associate professor in the Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, spearheaded the research as part of a study funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to track the decline of snowshoe hares.
Researchers found that snowshoe hares have disappeared from nearly half of the sites studied in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. In the Upper Peninsula, 27 percent of sites are now missing the snowshoe hare. In total, the research team studied 134 sites where snowshoe hares were historically found in Michigan.
“This decline is apparently occurring throughout Michigan but is particularly evident in the Lower Peninsula. Areas with historically abundant populations of snowshoe hares that supported hunting are now completely void of the animal,” said Roloff. “Snowshoe hares are an important ecological and cultural species in Michigan. Ecologically, hares are prey for animals such as bobcat, fisher, marten, coyote and raptors. Culturally, they are part of Michigan’s hunting heritage. When hunters have been asked why they stopped hunting hares, the consistent message has been there are too few hares in an area to make it worthwhile.”
Researchers link the decline to climate change, particularly warmer summers and winters without snow on the ground. Snowshoe hares change from brown to white as winter approaches, which offers them protection from predators. This change in coat color is triggered by photoperiod and not climate, so shorter winter seasons leave the hare without camouflage to hide it from predators.
Roloff said his team also found a link between warmer summers and hare population declines. Other researchers have suggested that warmer summers lead to decreased litter sizes.
One solution to the population decline may lie in subtle changes to forest management.
The study found that snowshoe hares prefer high-density stands with lots of vegetation cover, particularly conifers, for protection from predators. It also found that they will use cover created by blown-over trees or trees that are purposely knocked over. To improve habitat, foresters could leave or encourage a conifer component in harvested stands and, in areas without conifers, create cover by piling downed trees and tree tops.
State foresters said the new research will help in crafting forest management policies to deal with the effects of climate change on the snowshoe hare.
“The advice we have been able to provide was limited prior to this research, but if conditions line up right on given years, we could have an impact on the population,” said Dwayne Etter, wildlife research specialist at the DNR Rose Lake field office.
Food and Feeding Behavior: The snowshoe hare requires 300g (10.6 oz) of browse per day, and uses the two pairs of upper incisors to cleanly sever the twigs, buds, and bark of woody vegetation during the winter. It prefers small twigs 3-4 mm (1/8 in) in diameter of deciduous species such as raspberries, maples, birches, aspen, alder, and willow. When these are unavailable, white pine, white cedar, red spruce, and eastern hemlock are used. Herbaceous plants (clovers, grasses, sedges, ferns), berries, and the twigs and foliage of woody deciduous plants are summer foods. Like many leporids, snowshoes hares produce two kinds of fecal material, hard pellets, and soft droppings. Hares re-ingest their soft droppings, which are high in protein and contain large quantities of B vitamins, presumably to extract additional qualities of these substances. Snowshoe hares usually feed in conifer cover, and tend to avoid open areas such as marshes, fields, and roads which may even act as barriers. They forage at dusk, and even more actively at dawn.
Activity and Movement: Dense, long hairs cover the soles of the 13-18 cm (5-7 in) hindfeet, creating the “snowshoe” from which the species derives its name. This adaptation enables travel over deep snows although activity declines temporarily after heavy falls of fluffy snow. With the hindfeet splayed and the front feet close together, a snowshoe hare can erupt into a full run from a sitting position, attaining bursts of speeds of up to 40-56 km/h (25-35 mph) in a matter of seconds.
Hopping and a shuffling walk are the usual means of locomotion. Snowshoe hares spend the day resting in the same location or “form” beneath a dense conifer branch or near an old log. Travel, especially during winter, is along well defined pathways or trails. This species uses dusting places to alleviate tick infestations. Although capable of swimming, hares normally avoid water.
Reproduction: Adirondack snowshoe hares have the lowest reproductive rates for their species. Females produce 6-7 young per year, in three litters of 2-3 young per litter. Litters occur in mid to late May, June and July. After 36-37 day gestation period, a female bears her litter of precocial young (eyes open, fully furred, and capable of hopping about soon after birth). Each newborn weighs about 82 g (2.9 oz), and measures 10.5 cm (4 in). Young hares (leverets) are brown, grizzled with black, and have a white blaze on their foreheads. The female prepares no special nest, and the young occupy separate forms during much of the day and night, gathering around their mother for only 5-10 minutes at dusk each 24 hour period to nurse. Weaning occurs at 4-6 weeks. The young disperse by autumn, and begin breeding the following spring. Adult females breed again soon after the birth of their first and second litters. Potential life span is 8 years, but few adults survive more than 2-5 years.
Predators: Formerly, the lynx, and today the bobcat, coyote, fisher, marten, foxes, weasels, great horned owl, and goshawk are some snowshoe hare predators in the Adirondacks
- Social System – The species is solitary, promiscuous, and sedentary. Males compete aggressively for receptive females, biting and scratching each other. Rarely, such encounters prove fatal to one of the combatants. Both sexes occupy small, overlapping home ranges of 1.6-4.8 ha (4-12 acre) that vary in shape with the configuration of the habitat. This species, which is well known for its dramatic fluctuations in numbers in other parts of its range, maintains relatively stable populations is the Adirondacks, and within suitable habitat, some of the highest densities anywhere, 1.7 per ha (0.7 per acre)
- Communication – Snowshoe hares use visual, tactile, vocal, chemical, and mechanical signals to communicate. Individuals “thump” with their hindfeet, perhaps as an alarm signal. During courtship, partners may touch noses before a male rushes or chases the female. Chases then alternate between the two, both stopping abruptly and turing to leap over the back of the other. Both may urinate on the other while leaping. Snowshoe hares perform guttural hisses at the conclusion of mating, and grunt, snort, or growl in other contexts. When captured, injured or frightened, they may scream.