SEARCH:  
  SEARCH:
HOME | GATEWAYS | ACADEMICS | ADMISSION | DEPARTMENTS | DIRECTORIES | VISIT | LOG IN | SITE INDEX
Adult snowshoe hare in winter pelage

Adult snowshoe hare in winter pelage
photo credit - D.A. Saunders

Snowshoe Hare
(Lepus americanus Erxleben)

From: Saunders, D. A. 1988. Adirondack Mammals. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry. 216pp.

Order: Lagomorpha

Family: Leporidae

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.

Adult snowshoe hare in summer pelage

Adult snowshoe hare in summer pelage
photo credit - R. Brocke

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.

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.

Snowshoe hare fecal pellets

Snowshoe hare fecal pellets
photo credit - D.A. Saunders

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.

Hare leverets

Hare leverets
photo credit - D.A. Saunders

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 Behavior:

  • 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.

Additional References

Brocke, R.H. 1975. Preliminary guidelines for managing snowshoe hare habitat in the Adirondacks. Trans. N.E. Fish and Wildl. Conf. 32:46-66.

Brocke, R.H. 1983. Replenishment of a heavily exploited population of snowshoe hares. Trans. N.E. Fish and Wildl. Conf. 40:109.

Dell, J. 1976. The varying hare. The New York State Conservationist, 31(3):3 and 44.

Severaid, J.H. 1942. The snowshoe hare: its life history and artificial propagation. Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Game, 95pp.