Garreth's Wildlife Watch

Snowshoe Hare

(2013-11-12) For this edition of the Wildlife Watch, I would like to focus on one of the most important, but perhaps most overlooked terrestrial species we have here on our fair isle. The Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus) is a vital member of our island's natural world and also one of the most crucial species on our provincial food chain. These wonderful creatures are often referred to as "rabbits" by much of the local population, but of course true rabbits on Prince Edward Island only exist as pets or farm animals. Our wild populations are all Snowshoe Hare, this is perhaps a fun little fact you can bring up the next time you hear someone say they are going to hunt/snare rabbits!

Snowshoe Hares got their name by, as I'm sure you've guessed, their large hind feet which help them stay on top of deep snow in the harsh winter months of Canada. They also can be found from coast to coast here in our vast nation. It is well known that humans actively hunt these small mammals for their delicious meat and their superb fur, but island carnivores are also highly reliant on this species to provide much needed protein in their diets. Coyotes, foxes, red-tailed hawks, Northern Goshawks and owls rely heavily upon Hare to get them through the winter months. If we turn our eye to the mainland, one of the most classic examples of inter-species relationships is between the Canada Lynx and Snowshoe Hare. As the Hare population rises, so does the lynx population and when Hares become less abundant, the lynx suffers greatly.

Another amazing feature of the Snowshoe Hare is its ability to adapt to seasonal changes of its environment. In warmer months the hare's fur is a light brown that makes it near impossible for the human eye to see when it is taking cover in the forest. When the snows fall in the winter, the hare changes its fur colour to pure white, therefore blending in magnificently with its wintry home. By observing this species we can also see the effects of climate change on our native wildlife. Snow cover is not as prevalent as it once was here on PEI, therefore on a mild December day one may see a pure white hare running around a brown and green forest. This quick change to climate has happened too fast for the Hares to keep up with. Their lack of proper camouflage in mild winters makes them vulnerable to predation. I hypothesise that through the act of natural selection, Snowshoe Hares with shorter white phase of fur colour will be more successful in passing on their genetic information. An interesting case of evolutionary adaptation right here in our small province.

I hope this has given you, the reader, a larger appreciation of this wonderful species, and if not, we can at least all agree that they are pretty darn cute. Hopefully you will be able to observe one of these fine creatures in their natural wild habitat during a nice walk through the woods. Keep your eyes open!

About the Author

Garreth Ashley recently graduated from the Wildlife Conservation Technology program at Holland College and is currently at University this fall. He is a former employee and also a former Board Member of Kensington North. His blog, Wildlife Watch, is a collection of his own observations of wildlife on PEI.

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