The Arctic hare is one of the largest species of hare in North America that is adapted to live in the cold conditions of tundra environments. While they are similar to rabbits in appearance, these hares are taller, particularly when they stand, have shorter ears, and unlike rabbits, thrive in snowy areas. This is because of their ability to stay warm by digging holes underground or in the snow, in addition to their dense fur.
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Arctic explorer Sir John Ross first described this species in 1819.
Size: Length: 17 to 28 in (43 to 70 cm) Weight: 6–12 lb (2.5–5.5 kg)
Body and Coloration: Arctic hares have large, heavily padded feet with solid front and hind claws. The ears of these hares are shorter than most lagomorphs. They are larger than other species of hare, with body fat constituting up to 20% of their total mass.
Year-round, they have thick, gray fur on their chest and underbelly. However, the color of the rest of the coat changes seasonally. Their coat is long, wide, soft, and white during the winter season, and the ears are black-tipped. Throughout the summer, their coat gradually molts to a brownish-gray or gray-blue.
The young Arctic hare’s fur contains more black than adults’ during the summer months.
Arctic Hares are found in parts of Northern Canada, including Ellesmere Island, down to Newfoundland and around the northernmost coasts of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Islands.
They live in mountainous tundra, rocky plateaus, and treeless coasts.
As a herbivore, the arctic hare feeds on plants, especially crowberry, dwarf willow, and saxifrage. They have also been observed eating blooms, leaves, lichens, mountain sorrel, mosses, roots, seaweed, and twigs.
On rare occasions, they show carnivorous behavior and eat fish or scavenge the contents of the stomach of eviscerated reindeer. They meet their water requirements from eating snow.
Little is known about the longevity of this hare, but it is believed to live for an average of 3-5 years.
They are generally solitary, though sometimes they form large groups between 10 and 60 for feeding or breeding.
Their preferred form of locomotion is hopping and jumping, and are capable of leaping up to 2m into the air.
Arctic hares can stand on their hind limbs while keeping a forelimb tucked in. When they move about in this position, they leave behind three-legged tracks.
They are good swimmers and fast runners, reaching speeds of 40 mph.
Communication amongst various hares occurs via boxing, scratching, snapping, and laying their ears back.
Arctic hares have several predators, including Arctic and Red foxes, Canadian lynxes, ermines, gray wolves, gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, rough-legged hawks, and snowy owls.
Their ears are shorter than other hares, allowing them to conserve heat better.
The fur of the Arctic hare acts as an excellent form of camouflage both in summer and winter. While the white winter fur blends well with the icy and snowy terrain, the bluish-gray summer fur merges with the surrounding vegetation and rocks.
Besides their thick fur, Arctic hares maintain their body temperature in colder climates despite a lower metabolic rate. The reason is their smaller bodies have smaller volume but larger surface area, helping to conserve the heat.
Mating and Reproduction
These hares find new mates each breeding season. Males attract females through physical contact, including scratching and licking. They follow the female until mating occurs and are fairly aggressive during sex, biting her neck, sometimes drawing blood. A mating pair remains together, often settling away from other hares, up until their young are born. After birth of the baby hare, males, however, leave their partners.
Females generally have 1 litter per year, but 2 litters aren’t unheard of. 2 to 8 offspring is the average size of a litter. The gestation period is approximately 50 days, with the offspring born in May or June. The term used to refer to baby Arctic hares is leverets.
After 2 to 3 weeks, juveniles become primarily independent but choose to remain close to their mother until weaning occurs at 8-9 weeks. At approximately 315 days of age, hares reach sexual maturity.
The IUCN lists the arctic hare as “LC” or “Least Concern” and it is not considered an endangered species.
There are four known sub-species of Arctic hare – Lepus arcticus arcticus, Lepus arcticus banksia, Lepus arcticus groenlandicus, and Lepus arcticus monstrabilis.
The native people of the Arctic region use the hare for its fur, skin, and even meat.