Snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) are found throughout Canada and in the northernmost United States. Their range extends south to the Sierras, Rockies, and Appalachian mountains. They are common in Alaska and can be found throughout the state except for the lower Kuskokwim Delta, the Alaska Peninsula, and the area north of the Brooks Ranges. They are not native to Kodiak Island but were introduced to Kodiak in 1934.
Snowshoe hares average between 18 and 20 inches (.5 m) in total length and weigh 3 to 4 pounds (1.4– .8 kg). Males are slightly smaller than females. Their summer coat is yellowish to grayish-brown with buff-colored flanks and a white belly. The ears are light brown with black tips and creamy borders, and the face and legs are cinnamon brown. Their winter coat is snowy white, except for their black eyelids and the black tips of their ears.[1,2 ] The start of the molt from their summer to winter coat is regulated by daylength and takes approximately 72 days to complete. Two different sets of hair follicles give rise to the white and brown hairs. Snowshoe hares have large hind feet that are well-furred, allowing them to maneuver on deep snow and giving them their common name.
Snowshoes are mostly vegetarians and eat a variety of plant materials, including grasses, buds, twigs, and leaves in the summer and twigs, spruce needles, barks, and buds in the winter. They are also known to cannibalize the remains of other hares that have died, and they will eat fecal pellets to extract more nutrients.
Snowshoe hares breed when they are one year old, and in Alaska, they have two to three litters per year. Breeding takes place from mid-May until August, and both males and females have multiple mates. When the time nears for a pregnant female to give birth, she becomes highly intolerant of and aggressive toward males. The gestation period lasts 36 to 37 days, and the first litter of the year averages four young, called leverets. The second litter of the year often averages six leverets, and there is sometimes a third litter. Research suggests that the female may be able to breed even a day or two before she gives birth to her current litter.
Leverets are born in a natural, unlined depression in the ground. They weigh 2 ounces (57 g) at birth, and they can walk by the time their fur dries. One of the main features that differentiates hares from rabbits is that hares are born with a full coat of fur, while rabbits are born with no fur. Hares also have open eyes and ears at birth, and in less than two weeks after they are born, they are already able to eat green vegetation. They continue to nurse for a month before they leave the nest for good. Young hares reach sexual maturity within a year, but 85% of snowshoe hares live less than one year. Those that do survive may live up to five years in the wild.
Snowshoe-hare density in an area is often high, but hares are solitary animals. They are most active at low light levels, so they are usually seen at dusk and dawn. They are also active at night and on cloudy days. Most of their traveling takes place on well-known, trampled pathways through the vegetation, and these trails make deep grooves in the winter snow. During the day, hares take short naps and spend a large amount of time grooming themselves. They also take dust baths to remove ectoparasites from their fur.
Snowshoes can travel as fast as 27 mph (43.45 km/h) and can jump 10 ft. (3 m) in a single hop. They can change directions quickly and make vertical leaps, and both of these maneuvers aid them in avoiding predators. Hares are also good swimmers and will jump into a lake or a river to flee a predator. Young hares often attempt to escape predation by freezing in their tracks and blending into the background. If the hare remains immobile, the predator may not be able to see him when he is camouflaged.
Snowshoe hares have excellent hearing that helps them identify approaching predators, but they are not very vocal. They make loud, squealing sounds when captured and may hiss and snort when approached by a predator, but hares communicate among themselves by thumping their hind feet on the ground.
Populations of snowshoe hares cycle from periods of high abundance to periods of only a few animals. The population in an area will grow and then suddenly crash to a low level. When the population peaks, there may be as many as 600 hares per square mile (230/km2). Biologists are unsure why hare populations suddenly decline, but they suspect it may be due to a depletion of their food supply, predators, disease due to stress and parasites, or a combination of these causes. It is difficult to determine the size of a hare population, but biologists estimate approximately 100,000 snowshoe hares live on Kodiak Island.
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