SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus)
Any one who has come across snowshoe hare tracks deep in the woods in late winter can appreciate the expression, “Mad as a March Hare.” The expression usually refers to one who is completely insane. And if you are trying to figure out what these snowshoe hares are up to, you might think that they are truly insane. By following tracks that go around in circles or seem to change direction abruptly in the air and double back, one has the feeling that something unusual has gone on deep in the woods.
Mad as a March Hare refers to the mating behavior of hares and considering their antics there is little that is ordinary about it. Snowshoe hares chase, kick, bite, hiss and urinate on each other. Once the snowshoe male has fought off other males, the real madness of mating begins. A passage from the VT Almanac describes the scene:
He approaches the female, touches her nose, and jumps in the air. She dashes under him and runs away. He chases her until he’s almost caught her, but then she suddenly jumps in the air, swings around, and heads in the other direction. Her jump is so unexpected that the male runs right under her, and only after she’s headed in the other direction does he get himself turned around and headed after her again. After a certain amount of chasing and jumping over each other, during which the hare in the air urinates on the hare passing underneath, the female is ready to mate. But that’s not the end of the madness. After mating, the male jumps backward, hissing and sometimes turning around in midair. The female hisses back and runs right by him, starting another chase. They may mate several more times before they’re done.
With a gestation period of 36 days, precocial young (born active and alert, fully haired with open eyes) are able to hop on their first day, and are weaned in 25 to 28 days. Mothers are characterized by postpartum estrus and are often impregnated within a day after giving birth. Until weaned, the young hide separately (on their own, or by the mother) during the day, returning to the nest in the evening for one nursing, which only lasts for 5 - 10 minutes. Young snowshoe hare usually do not breed within their first calendar year of life. Life span of 3 - 5 years, although probably not more than 15% survive to breed during more than one season.
Beyond their wild March mating rituals, snowshoe hare have several adaptations for the climate in which they live. Twice a year they molt. The winter molt takes 70 to 90 days beginning in October and being complete in December; with the spring molt being complete in May. Turning white in winter not only helps this herbivore hide from predators, the hollow white hairs, without the pigment melanin, have more air spaces within the hairs and thus has greater insulation. Snowshoe hares' white winter coat has 27% better insulative qualities than the summer brown coat. The molts are triggered by day length.
In the winter, their feet get covered in stiff bristly hairs and their toes spread out allowing for them to walk on top of the snow. In essence, this is why they are called the Snowshoe Hare: Their hind feet literally become snowshoes.
In terms of diet, snowshoe hare have adapted to optimizing the nutrients they can get from
woody and herbaceous plants. Snowshoe hares reingest their own feces to absorb more of the vitamins and nutrients contained in them. These are usually soft pellets that are voided during the day while the animal is at rest. The snowshoe hare swallows them direct from its anus without chewing. Reingestion, or coprophagy, allows for further digestion of plant material, much like cud chewing in ruminants.
So for all of their March madness, snowshoe hare are not completely mad. With their energetic mating behaviors and winter adaptations they are truly remarkable animals.
Want to see sign of snowshoe hare in the wild? Join a Naturalist Guide at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center for a guided snowshoe walk or hike. Call ahead (603-466-2721) for program times and details. Have a natural history question that you would like answered in this blog? Send out an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.