Snowshoe hares are found throughout Canada and in the northernmost United States. The range extends south along the Sierras, Rockies, and Appalachian mountain ranges. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Snowshoe hares range in length from 413 to 518 mm, of which 39 to 52 mm are tail. The hind foot, long and broad, measures 117 to 147 mm in length. The ears are 62 to 70 mm from notch to tip. Snowshoe hares usually weigh between 1.43 and 1.55 kg. Males are slightly smaller than females, as is typical for leporids. In the summer, the coat is a grizzled rusty or grayish brown, with a blackish middorsal line, buffy flanks and a white belly. The face and legs are cinnamon brown. The ears are brownish with black tips and white or creamy borders. During the winter, the fur is almost entirely white, except for black eyelids and the blackened tips on the ears. The soles of the feet are densely furred, with stiff hairs (forming the snowshoe) on the hind feet. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Groups of males congregate around estrus females, following the females as they move about their home ranges. Mating is polygynandrous (both males and females have multiple mates). (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Breeding season for snowshoe hares runs from mid-March through August, when the testes of the male begin to regress. Gestation lasts 36 days. When parturition approaches, female hares become highly aggressive and intolerant of males. They retire to a birthing area, where they have prepared an area of packed down grasses. Females give birth to litters of up to 8 young, although the average litter size is usually two to four young. Litters born late in the season tend to be larger than litters born in the spring. Females are polyestrous and may have up to four litters a year, depending on enviromental conditions. Males and females become mature within a year of their birth. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Young snowshoe hares are precocial. They are born fully furred and able to locomote. The young hide in separate locations during the day, only coming together for 5 to 10 minutes at a time to nurse. The female alone cares for them until they are weaned and disperse, about four weeks after they are born. (Kurta, 1995)
Snowshoe hares are typically solitary, but they often live at high densities, and individuals share overlapping home ranges. They are active at low light levels and so are most often seen out and about at dawn, dusk, and during the night. They are also active on cloudy days.
During the daylight hours, hares spend a great deal of time grooming, and they take fitful naps. Most activity is restricted to pathways, trampled down "roads" in the vegetation that the hares know very thoroughly.
Hares like to take dust baths. These help to remove ectoparasites from the hares' fur.
Snowshoe hares are also accomplished swimmers. They occasionally swim across small lakes and rivers, and they have been seen entering the water in order to avoid predators. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
During its active period, a hare may cover up to 0.02 square kilometers of its 0.03 to 0.07 square kilometer home range.
Snowshoe hares have acute hearing, which presumably helps them to identify approaching predators. They are not particularly vocal animals, but may make loud squealing sounds when captured. When engaging in aggressive activites, these animals may hiss and snort. Most communication between hares involves thumping the hind feet against the ground. (Kurta, 1995)
The diet of snowshoe hares is variable. They browse on green grasses, forbs, bluegrass, brome, vetches, asters, jewelweed, wild strawberry, pussy-toes, dandelions, clovers, daisies and horsetails. The new growth of trembling aspen, birches and willows is also eaten. During the winter, snowshoe hares forage on buds, twigs, bark, and evergreens. They have been known to cannibalize the remains of dead conspecifics in winter months. At all times, it is important for hares to reingest certain feces. Because much of the digestion of food occurs in their hindguts, in order to extract all of the available nutrients from their food, they must cycle it through their digestive system a second time. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Snowshoe hares are experts at escaping predators. Young hares often "freeze" in their tracks when they are alerted to the presence of a predator. Presumably, they are attempting to escape notice by being cryptic. Given the hare's background-matching coloration, this strategy is quite effective. Older hares are more likely to escape predators by fleeing. At top speed, a snowshoe hare can travel up to 27 mile per hour. An adult hare can cover up to 10 feet in a single bound. In addition to high speeds, hares employ skillful changes in direction and vertical leaps, which may cause a predator to misjudge the exact position of the animal from one moment to the next.
Snowshoe hares are utilized widely as a source of wild meat. In addition to this, they are an important prey species for many predators whose furs are highly valued. (Kurta, 1995)
Hares may damage trees, especially during periods of high population density. (Kurta, 1995)
Snowshoe hares have been widely studied. One of the more interesting things known about hares are the dramatic population cycles that they undergo. Population densities can vary from 1 to 10,000 hares per square mile. The amplitude of the population fluctuations varies across the geographic range. It is greatest in northwestern Canada, and least in the rocky Mountain region of the United States, perhaps because there is more biological diversity in more southerly regions. The lack of diversity in the Northwestern portion of the hare's range means that there are fewer links in the food chain, and therefore fewer species to buffer either dramatic population increases or decreases. Disease may play a part in population fluctuation. Pneumonococcus, ringworm, and salmonella have all been associated with population crashes.
Snowshoe hares are also famous for their seasonal molts. In the summer, the coat of the hare is reddish brown or gray, but during the winter, the coat is snowy white. The molt usually takes about 72 days to reach completion, and it seems to be regulated by daylength. Interestingly, there seem to be two entirely different sets of hair follicles, which give rise to white and brown hairs, respectively. (Kurta, 1995; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Allison Poor (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Nancy Shefferly (author), Animal Diversity Web.
living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.
uses sound to communicate
living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.
flesh of dead animals.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
active at dawn and dusk
having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
union of egg and spermatozoan
an animal that mainly eats leaves.
A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
active during the night
the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.
specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.
uses touch to communicate
Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement
A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.
uses sight to communicate
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
young are relatively well-developed when born
Baker, R.H. 1983. Mammals of Michigan. Michigan State University Press.
Banfield, A.W.F. 1981. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto University Press. Toronto, Buffalo.
Carey, J., D. Judge. 2002. "Longevity Records: Life Spans of Mammals, Birds, Amphibians, Reptiles, and Fish" (On-line). Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Accessed May 18, 2007 at http://www.demogr.mpg.de/.
Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press.