Arctic Hare Fact File
The arctic hare has a different appearance in winter and summer in parts of their range. During winter they have a long, thick white coat which helps to keep heat in. When they detect a change in daylight hours they will molt their coat to a grey-brown thinner coat. During this time the ears are tipped with black fur.
This molt occurs in the northern areas of the range where the snow melts. In the north of their range they often do not molt as the snow does not melt and it remains cold through summer.
On the chest and tail the fur remains gray year round.
They have shorter ears and extremities compared to other rabbits and hares. This serves to reduce heat loss in their cold environment.
To help dig through the snow they have claws on each foot. On the front foot are five toes and on the back are four. Their paws are large to help them walk across the snow.
Their eyelashes are black helping to protect their eyes from the glare of sun coming off the snow and ice.
At the end of the body is a short tail measuring 4.5-10cm (1.75-4in) long.
Their body measures 43-66cm (17-26in) long with a weight of 3-7kg (6.5-15lbs). Females are often slightly larger than males but at a glance they look similar.
This species is similar in appearance to the related snowshoe hare and the pair of species are often confused.
The arctic hare is an omnivore. Their diet is primarily focused on low growing grasses, herbs, berries, buds and shrubs along with the arctic dwarf willow. Animal prey and carrion will also be eaten in small amounts.
Arctic hares will process their food for the first time and then eat the resulting soft pellet. This is processed a second time after which it is deposited as a round, hard pellet.
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This species is found around the Arctic region through Canada and on the island of Greenland.
They make their home in forest and shrubland. Most of their habitat is tundra which lacks tree cover. Often they make use of rocky outcrops and hillsides where they can seek shelter in crevices.
Arctic hares may hide in natural shelters or dig a small den in the snow.
Their breeding season is currently thought to last from April to mid-September. Males follow the females during this period and when they mate her he will bite the back of the neck. Males can mate with multiple mates in a single season.
Females form a nest which is located in a hollow and lined with grass, moss and fur. In this nest she will give birth to between 1 and 8 young. Each breeding season she may give birth to between 1 and 3 litters.
At birth the young have greyish-brown fur which helps them to blend with their surroundings.
The female only visits the young known as leverets to suckle them for 2 minutes every 18 hours.
Young are weaned at 8 to 9 weeks of age.
Sexual maturity is reached by the next breeding season.
For most of the year the species is solitary. During winter some populations display a flocking behavior where groups of up to 300 individuals will gather, move and run together.
While the species is well camouflaged in winter they are often bold and easy to approach. During summer when they are easier to spot they will bolt quickly if approached.
Due to their thick coat of fur they are able to survive an Arctic winter without hibernating.
They are recorded reaching speeds up to 60kmh (40mph).
Their eyes are set on the sides of the head giving them a full 360 degree field of vision.
Predators and Threats
Natural predators of the Arctic hare include birds of prey such as the gyrfalcon, perergrine falcon and the snowy owl. Mammals such as the arctic fox, polar bear, wolves and ermines also pose a threat.
Populations in the south of their range are facing habitat loss. Climate change may also pose a threat to this species in the future.
They are hunted by local people for food and fur.
This species is often called the “polar rabbit” despite not being a rabbit.
By Ansgar Walk – photo taken by Ansgar Walk, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1126519
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