If you think you know all there is to know about the Arctic hare, think again! This fascinating creature has some truly incredible adaptations that help it survive in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. From its lightning-fast speed to its ability to change colors, the Arctic hare is full of surprises. So join us as we take a closer look at some of the most amazing facts about this remarkable animal that you won’t want to miss!
1. Arctic hares are camouflage masters
The Arctic hare, belonging to the Leporidae family, is one of the largest species in this family. On average, it has a size of 2.4 to 5 kg in weight, some individuals may weigh up to 7 kg.
Like other creatures in the Arctic, these hares feature many adaptions (from behavior to anatomy to physiology) that aid in their survival in the cold environment. And their coat is one of them.
The whole body of Arctic hares is coated with an exceptionally insulating and remarkably thick coat. This dense, white fur not only keeps them warm from the harsh winter weather but also helps them blend in perfectly with the snowy terrain.
There are four sub-species of Arctic hares. Those residing in the northernmost regions retain their white fur all year round, albeit with a shorter summer coat. You can hardly see them in the white environment.
On the other hand, individuals living in the southern regions experience a notable change in their appearance twice a year. During winter, their coat is white, while in summer, it takes on a grayish-brown hue that resembles the surrounding stones and plants. These Arctic hares have short ears with black tips, and their fur molting pattern is similar to that of the Arctic fox.
Furthermore, in order to survive in this frigid climate, Arctic hares own a more robust build and shorter ears and limbs. These characteristics reduce their surface area-to-volume ratio, which helps to minimize heat loss. Their lower metabolic rate also allows them to store energy.
Their paws are thickly cushioned with fur, enabling them to walk on soft snow without sinking and providing insulation from the snow and ice. The fur also gives them better traction on slippery surfaces.
The Arctic Hare predominantly resides beyond the northern tree line of the Arctic tundra, although a few migrate beneath it during winter. They can be found at elevations of up to 900m and inhabit various Arctic regions including Canada, Greenland, Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island, and Newfoundland.
Rocky mountainous areas provide suitable habitats for their survival, with adequate coverage for plant growth and preventing snow accumulation.
3. They can run faster than cars
Arctic hares, like their fellow hares and rabbits, are renowned for their impressive speed. Compared to other cold climate animals, these hares have a pretty low amount of body fat, around 20. However, it allows them to reach speeds of up to 37 mph (60 km/h) for short distances, with all four feet placed on the ground.
This rapid pace is even faster than the average speed of a car in the city, which can assist them to escape from predators.
The cute creatures prefer to hop and jump, much like a kangaroo on its hind legs. In this position, they can travel at speeds of up to 30 mph. It can jump as far as 6.5-9.8 feet (2-3 meters) with just a single leap.
4. They are omnivores
Arctic hares rely on various food sources to survive throughout the year. During the winter, they primarily eat lichens, mosses, and woody plants, which they often dig out of the snow. In the other seasons, they turn to a diet consisting of buds, bark, sedges, berries, roots, and leaves. With longer and straighter front teeth (incisors), they can pluck plants from rocky crevices.
Unlike rabbits, Arctic hares are not strictly herbivores. They can opportunistically prey on other animals or scavenge for food. Reports indicate that they have scavenged fish and meat, such as fish and caribou stomach contents. Additionally, they consume snow as a source of water.
The species possess excellent locomotor efficiency and have a tendency to take long naps, interspersed with brief foraging bursts. This behavior helps them conserve energy and live on a modest diet.
Several predators hunt on these adorable critters, including the Arctic wolf, rough-legged hawk, Canadian lynx, grey wolf, Arctic fox, snowy owl, red fox, gyrfalcon, ermine, and lynx. In the south, they are also hunted by peregrine falcons. Among all predators, the Arctic wolf is the most fearsome attacker. Even their pups can easily take down an adult hare in the first hunt.
Apart from natural predators, humans (Native Americans) also hunt Arctic hares for their fur and meat. This hunting may not cause any significant impact on their overall numbers.
5. They gather in groups of 3000 members
Arctic hares are known to live solitarily, but they can sometimes come together in groups ranging from six to several hundred or even 3,000 or more individuals during the winter months. These groups are referred to as “down,” “band,” “husk,” “flick,” or “warren.” In spring or in mating season, they will spread.
Dwelling in groups allows Arctic hares to keep warm by huddling together in the coldest winters. It also enhances their ability to detect predators approaching and confuse them by scattering, making it harder for predators to target a specific hare and reducing the likelihood of a successful kill.
These species are nocturnal animals, they look for food at night. When foraging, they tend to gather in groups of 10-60 individuals, moving and changing direction simultaneously.
During extremely cold weather, Arctic hares burrow into the ground or under the snow to escape from the harsh winds and sleep. Although the temperature inside these snow holes is low, it is notably higher than outside and, of course, wind-free. This is also a rapid and uncomplicated method for the hares to stay away from predators.
With their long claws, particularly on their hind legs, these hares can effortlessly dig through packed snow. Typically, one hare will only occupy a burrow, except for a mother with her offspring.
To communicate, these animals can do many ways, such as snapping, laying ears back, scratching, and boxing.
Although hares have the ability to swim, they dislike doing so because their fur takes a long time to dry after getting wet. However, if an Arctic hare is found swimming, it is likely trying to evade a predator.
Like polar bears, these hares don’t hibernate.
6. They can see 360o
As nocturnal creatures, Arctic hares possess sharper senses. Although they have poor hearing, they compensate for it with an exceptional sense of smell and vision.
Their eyesight is particularly remarkable as they have excellent peripheral vision, enabling them to see at a 360-degree angle without turning their heads. This is due to the placement of their eyes on opposite sides of their head. The species can also see above their heads.
Additionally, they have natural sunglasses in the form of black eyelashes that protect their eyes from the intense glare of the sun on snowy terrain.
Compared to humans, Arctic hares have more rods than cones in their retinas. This allows them to see more clearly in low light conditions, but they can only distinguish between two colors – green and blue – and cannot perceive red.
Besides the great vision, these hares also feature an excellent sense of smell. They can sniff out food beneath the snow by using the “nose blinking” technique, where they move their noses up and down to detect the scent. Furthermore, they can convey messages to other animals by emitting scents through their noses.
As mentioned before, Arctic hares differ from other animals in their breeding habits. Rather than gathering, they pair off and establish mating territories, with males sometimes taking multiple female partners.
Their mating season occurs from April to May. Like their rabbit cousins, these hares have a rapid reproductive rate, allowing their populations to quickly grow.
During this time, the female constructs a nest in a depression in the ground, often concealed by rocks or bushes. It’s lined with grass and the female’s fur. After a gestation period of 53 days, the young are born between May and July. Those in the northernmost part are born later.
The female gives birth to one litter in one year, usually in spring or early summer. There will be 3 to 8 babies called leverets in each litter. The mother will remain with her newborn babies for the initial days. But after two to three weeks, the mother will leave the nest, returning only every 18 hours or so to feed their offspring milk. The young are entirely weaned between the ages of 8 and 9 weeks old.
The young hares can protect themselves by staying still amidst rocks or vegetation to avoid predators.
As they mature rapidly, they become young adults by September of the same year and are ready to mate in the next breeding season. The average lifespan of Arctic hares is about 3 to 5 years in their natural habitat.
8. Conservation status
The Arctic hare population is not exactly known. These species are classified as “least concern” or “least risk” under the IUCN Red List. However, it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that they are not facing any threats or challenges.
Habitat loss is a challenge for populations residing in their southern range. Climate change poses a future threat to this species.