Snowshoe hares (lepus americanus) are named for their oversize hind feet, which allow them to travel easily in the snow, and are one of North Idaho’s native mammal species. Snowshoe hares are mostly nocturnal, so you are much more likely to see their distinctive tracks, than the animal itself. During the winter, snowshoe hares change in color from a dusty brown to pure white, allowing them to avoid predators.
The color change is thought to be at least partly linked to photoperiod—the amount of light during the day. As the days shorten, receptors in the eye transmit information to the hare’s brain, stimulating the replacement of brown hair with white beginning at the extremities. One study has shown that global warming may be a major threat to the survival of these animals. By reducing snow cover, a changing climate throws a wrench in the timing of the color change, leaving snow-white hares unable to hide against earth-colored surroundings. In response, some populations of snowshoe hares have begun to remain brown year round.
Interesting facts about snowshoe hares:
- They have fur on the bottoms of their paws to protect them from freezing temperatures.
- Snowshoe hares prefer dense undergrowth as habitat and often dig small hollows in which to hide from predators.
- They have two uteri, so can actually be pregnant with two litters of young at the same time.
- While snowshoe hares are mostly herbivores, they have been know to steal meat from traps and to eat smaller rodents if no other food is available.
- There are 14 subspecies of snowshoe hare, the pineus subspecies is most common in our area.