When you head into the boreal forests of the northernmost parts of North America, one of the most common animals you will find is the snowshoe hares. These little fellas are often mistaken for rabbits and find themselves overshadowed by their more famous cousins.
But while they are not the bunnies we know, they still play an important part in their ecosystem. Snowshoe hares can be found in all over the north, and deserve a bit of recognition.
Join us here on Floofmania as we dive into what there is to know about the snowshoe hares species and what makes them such fascinating animals.
What Does A Snowshoe Hare Look Like?
Table of Contents
- 1 What Does A Snowshoe Hare Look Like?
- 2 Where Can Snowshoe Hares Be Found?
- 3 What Kind Of Animal Is A Snowshoe Hare?
- 4 Are Snowshoe Hares Considered Keystone Species?
- 5 What’s The Difference Between A Snowshoe Hare, A Cottontail Rabbit, An Arctic Hare, and A Jackrabbit?
Snowshoe hares resemble rabbits, with both having floppy ears moving around when hopping. While they do look similar, they have some noticeable differences.
For one, snowshoe hares are generally larger than most species of rabbits, measuring around 2 feet and weighing 3-4 pounds, though there are some exceptions. Aside from that, snowshoe hares have short ears and more powerful hind legs that they use for hopping. Probably their most distinctive feature, though, are their feet.
True to their name, snowshoe hares have large hind legs which are heavily furred and adapted to walking on the snow. Thanks to the size of their feet, they spread out the weight of our little friends, allowing them to walk atop the snow without sinking in. This functions similarly to real-life snowshoes.
Another noticeable feature of them is their fur. For most of the year, their fur ranges from tan, gray, and brown with a white undercoat, making them similar to most hares and rabbits. Once winter comes along, they shed this brown fur in favor of a winter coat with grey underfur. This color allows them to blend into the snow.
Where Can Snowshoe Hares Be Found?
As their name suggests, snowshoe hares is a species that favors snowy and cold climates so they are found mainly in the northern parts of North America. Their main habitat is in Canada and the northern United States, but are occasionally spotted in southern states like New Mexico.
While they like the cold, snowshoe hares have a limit to the temperatures they can tolerate. These hares struggle to survive in extreme cold such as the arctic regions, which is why they are a rare sight in the northern provinces, even though they can still be spotted in some parts of Alaska.
In recent years, with global warming, snowshoe hares have been observed father and father north as these regions become warm enough for them to thrive.
In terms of a specific habitat, snowshoe hares prefer wooded areas because of the abundance of plant life to eat. Snowshoe hares rely on plants to provide them with food such as leaves and small plants on the forest floor or the branches and bark of trees.
In warmer areas like New Mexico and Utah, snowshoe hares stick to mountainous areas where the air is cooler.
Fact: Snowshoe hares have the largest geographic range of any rabbit or hare in North America.
What Kind Of Animal Is A Snowshoe Hare?
Snowshoe hares are a kind of mammal, belonging to the Lagomorph order which means hare-shaped in Latin. This taxonomic order includes all species of rabbits, hares, and pikas. The lagomorphs order consists of over 30 species.
These animals were once classified as rodents along with rats and mice before scientists separated them into a separate taxonomic order.
What caused scientists to separate these animals were the unique traits of lagomorphs that weren’t found in other rodents.
One of these traits is their front teeth which continuously grow throughout their lives. While all rodents have this feature, lagomorphs have an additional set of incisors that also continuously grow.
Lagomorphs are also known to double digest food, allowing them to maximize the amount of nutrients they get from meals. Yup, they actually eat their poop to digest it a second time!. This is also why they have two types of poop – one that’s not fully digested and a second state that the snowshoe hare doesn’t redigest..
Probably the most well-known trait of Lagomorphs is their high rates of reproduction. It is after all that we get the term “breeding like bunnies” though this applies to all Lagomorphs including snowshoe hares.
All species breed at least once per year, usually in a sizable litter. Snowshoe hares in particular are adept at this as their giant population has made them a key component in the ecosystems they inhabit.
Additionally, aside from having many babies, lagomorphs also reach adulthood quickly. Newborns can be walking within a few hours and are weaned off milk within a month, allowing them to leave the nest soon after.
Fact: A common misconception that people have about lagomorphs is that they all look like bunnies with long ears, strong hind legs, and move by hopping. While true for many species like the snowshoe hares, others like the Pika look closer to rats and move by scurrying around instead of hopping.
What’s The Snowshoe Hare’s Scientific Name?
The scientific name of the snowshoe hare is Lepus Americanus. It gets this name because Lepus is Latin for hare or rabbit while Americanus is America, so the scientific name translates to American Hare. While it is not the only hare found in America, it is one of the most widespread, being found across dozens of states and most of Canada.
Is A Snowshoe Hare A Kind Of Rabbit?
While it’s a common misconception, that is simply not the case. Snowshoe hares and rabbits fall under the same taxonomic order of Langomorphs, but they are different species. Snowshoe hares are instead a species of hare, an animal that looks similar to rabbits but has some subtle differences.
Rabbits tend to be smaller and have shorter ears while hares have longer legs. There are also some differences in their behaviors such as where they make their homes. While rabbits burrow underground and live in warrens, hares make their home in depressions and under trees above ground.
Are Snowshoe Hares Herbivores, Omnivores, or Carnivores?
For the longest time, snowshoe hares have been classified as pure herbivores, getting all their nutrients from plant life. Their diet mainly consists of things like fallen leaves, ferns, and clovers they find on the forest floor.
As the seasons change, though, so does the diet of these little critters who will adjust their menu to the available food. When winter rolls around and there is less greenery to eat, these resourceful animals will then swap to twigs, buds, and tree bark. Up until recently, scientists believed this was all snowshoe hares ate.
However, a recent study by National Geographic reveals that during the cold months, snowshoe hares sometimes turn to another source of food, meat!
That’s right, it has been discovered that snowshoe hares are actually omnivorous and will eat meat from time to time. Photos taken showed them eating the carcasses of birds and other small mammals, including other snowshoe hares!
While they are omnivores, snowshoe hares are not predators and do not hunt for their meals. Instead, they are scavengers and pick off carcasses that were already hunted.
Instances of meat eating, especially cannibalism, taking place are incredibly rare as snowshoe hares do not eat meat under normal circumstances. This was only observed during deep winter when food was scarce.
Fact: Among the animal remains that snowshoe hares have been observed eating was the Canadian Lynx. What makes this especially ironic is that lynxes are a common predator of snowshoe hares.
Are Snowshoe Hares Considered Keystone Species?
Yes, snowshoe hares have long been considered a keystone species in their habitats, specifically a keystone prey. This is a type of keystone species that serves as the main food source for many species of predators, providing them with an easy meal and ensuring they can survive in a habitat.
Without keystone prey, many predators wouldn’t have enough food and wouldn’t survive. In the case of the snowshoe hare, many animals such as lynxes, bobcats, great-horned owls, foxes, coyotes, wolves, and goshawks depend on snowshoe hares for food.
Snowshoe hares can serve this role for two reasons.
- Their massive population.
- Their widespread distribution and accessibility.
Snowshoe Hares Breed Like Bunnies, Literally!
When a prey species is being hunted by so many animals, it puts a lot of strain on its population, and for some species, the results are disastrous since they can’t replenish their numbers that easily. These conditions make keystone prey somewhat rare.
Snowshoe hares, though are less affected by this dilemma thanks to their ability to reproduce at such a rapid pace.
Although snowshoe hares have a fixed mating period between February and June, they reproduce quickly. The gestation period lasts a little over a month, meaning a female can birth as many as four litters in a breding season.
Litters range in size from 1 to 9 babies, meaning in a single year, a female can give birth to over 30 babies! Even if only half of those reach adulthood, it can easily replenish the snowshoe hare population.
Snowshoe Hares Are Widely Dispersed
With so many snowshoe hares running around, it is no surprise that they are also spread out across the country. Snowshow hares can be found across large parts of the continent, from Alaska to New Mexico.
Being so widespread means that predators also have the opportunity to spread out as they will always have a source of food where they go.
Helping this is the fact that snowshoe hares are generally easier to capture than other prey. While they do try to avoid predators, they can’t dig underground or fly away, making it easier for predators to catch them.
What’s The Difference Between A Snowshoe Hare, A Cottontail Rabbit, An Arctic Hare, and A Jackrabbit?
With so many different Lagomorphs, it can be easy to get our cotton-tailed friends mixed up. Aside from being in the same group, bunnies and hares also share many similarities. To tell them apart you have to look at the differences, while they can be subtle, they are there if you look hard enough.
Many people have a hard time telling apart cotton tail rabbits and snowshoe hares because both animals share the same habitat and even look alike. They inhabit the boreal forests of northern parts of the United States and Canada.
But while they are alike in appearance, they are different species and that can be seen in the subtle differences in their appearance and behavior. Hares tend to be larger and heavier. While cottontail rabbits are only about a foot long and weigh 2 pounds, snowshoe hares are almost twice as long and weigh up to 4 pounds.
They also make their homes in different ways as, like all rabbits, cotton tails live underground in little warrens. Meanwhile, snowshoe hares make their homes aboveground, though in places like holes and depressions where they can have some cover.
Arctic Hares Are Larger Versions of Snowshoe Hares
Probably the pair closest in terms of appearance is the artic and snowshoe hares. Aside from being the same family, they also live in similar climates, the northern and colder parts of North America.
Where they are different is in their size. Arctic hares are noticeably larger, measuring 3 feet including their tail, and weighing between 6 to 12 pounds. Snowshoe hares meanwhile are about a third of that weight and are about 2 feet long. This difference reflects where both animals make their homes.
We say their habitats are similar because while they are close, they are not entirely the same. While snowshoe hares like the cold, they tend to avoid the far north, staying just south of the arctic circle.
Arctic hares, though seem to favor these polar regions more and make their homes in the polar regions of Canada and even in some parts of Greenland. Aside from that range, their habitats are also somewhat different.
Snowshoe hares prefer forests and wooded places where they have easy access to food and shelter. Meanwhile, arctic hares make their homes in mountainous areas with less tree cover, instead eating only seedlings and willows.
Arctic hares are also more sociable than snowshoe hares, at least when the situation requires it. During extremely cold weather, arctic hares are known to gather together in groups of dozens or even hundreds to huddle together for warmth.
Fact: Like snowshoe hares, arctic hares are also known to shed their winter coats in favor of darker colors during spring and summer. During this time of the year, they usually have a grey or brown coat.
The Jackrabbit Is The Snowshoe Hare’s Closest Relative
The closest relative of the snowshoe hares isn’t the bunny as some people believe, but the jackrabbit, more properly known as the black-tailed jackrabbit. Despite their name, jackrabbits are not rabbits, but another species of hare. That means the jackrabbits and snowshoe hares are closely related.
So while they are similar, there are some differences, most notably in where they make their habitats. While snowshoe hares prefer the forests and colder climates up north, jackrabbits prefer dryer and arid climates such as deserts and scrublands.
Snowshoe hares also have larger feet which allows them to walk on top of the snow without sinking in.
Probably the biggest difference is their fur color. With the different climates they inhabit, they require different fur colors. Jackrabbits have a tanner appearance to blend in the desert while snowshoe hares are white during winter, but during the rest of the year, they will have a brown coat.
Fact: The man who popularized the term, jackrabbit was none other than Mark Twain in his book, Roughing It. He used the term jackass rabbits on hares for their long ears which resembled those of donkeys. The term was later shortened to simply jackrabbits.
|Snowshoe Hare||2 feet||3-4 pounds||White in the winter.|
Brown, grey, or yellow for the rest of the year.
|Cottontail Rabbit||1 foot||2 pounds||Reddish- or Grayish-brown, with a white undercoat.|
|Arctic Hare||3 feet||6-12 pounds||White with black tips around the ear during winter and grayish-brown for the rest of the year.|
|Black-Tailed Jackrabbit||2 feet||3-9 pounds||Brown peppered with black.|
Author: Quade Ong
Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!