Arctic Hare

In spite of a wide distribution throughout northern Canada and Greenland, from the northernmost points of land south to Newfoundland, the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) remains one of the least known of the hare family. Though of limited economic importance, the Arctic hare is hunted by native hunters throughout most of its range. Inuktitut names include okalerk, okalik, and okalishugyuk. Related hares are the Blue or Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) of Eurasia and the Alaska hare (Lepus otis) or ukallisugruk of northern Alaska.

Adult hares weigh on average 4-5 kg with a total length of over 70 cm. The young are born in June with mottled gray-brown fur providing excellent camouflage. Young of the year reach near-adult size and coloration by September but retain a brown topknot. Male and female hares are only distinguishable in the breeding season through behavior and during lactation. Summer color, shedding, and molt patterns change with latitude. From Baffin Island south, hares turn blue-gray in summer, while in the north they remain white all year.

Hares feed primarily on Arctic willow and flowering plants such as purple saxifrage. Feeding can be destructive, as hares dig up roots and break off sizable willow twigs. In winter, hares dig craters in snow, but tend to feed in areas where snow is shallow or plants are exposed by wind.

Reingestion of soft fecal pellets, common to all hares, occurs during rest periods at intervals of about 30 min. Hard round pellets are passed at regular intervals while moving and feeding, and less often while resting.

The activities of Arctic hares in a group are synchronized, in that they feed and rest at about the same

Lepus Arcticus
Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), Northwest Territories, Canada. Copyright Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

time. In the Canadian High Arctic, hares feed actively in the early to mid-morning, rest for 2-3 h in the late morning and early afternoon, and feed again in the mid-afternoon. The morning rest period is highly synchronized, with most hares in an area resting at the same time. Another less coordinated rest period occurs in the evening before midnight.

Behavioral modifications used by Arctic hares to maintain their normal body temperature in winter include posture, orientation, the use of natural shelter, and the digging of snow dens. Hares adopt a near-spherical shape while resting, with only the thick pads of the hind feet touching the snow. Hares typically rest together in closely spaced large winter groups, but do not huddle. Only young litter mates in summer are known to huddle together. Hares in groups do not usually seek shelter, but solitary hares groom, rest, and reingest in the shelter of rocks or snow drifts. When wind speeds increase, resting hares shift from facing the sun to orient their backs to the wind. As daily mean temperatures increase in the Arctic spring, the resting posture changes from the tightly curled sphere to a more relaxed sprawl.

Hares dig forms in loose soil in summer and also dig snow dens up to 188 cm in length in snowdrifts. Snow dens are not used for feeding, and their value as safety from predators is likely to be secondary to their value as shelter.

From late winter through late summer, Arctic hares may occur in groups of over 100 individuals. The composition of late winter groups varies, but most contain males and females. In late summer, groups also contain young of the year. There is no evidence of territory formation in Arctic hares, although dominant males displace others from food sources and shelter. Where home ranges of hares have been studied, they overlap considerably.

Movements of hares either in groups or alone are variable. Hares may cover several kilometers while feeding over several hours. During the breeding season, males also make deliberate movements of up to 5 km without feeding.

The first visual sign of the onset of breeding is the display of the penis by male hares. In the northern islands, this behavior is commonly seen in late April and early May after the onset of 24 h of daylight. Continual olfactory investigation of females often leads to agonistic encounters in the form of boxing with forepaws. Copulation occurs following persistent sexual chasing and fighting by several males within a group, or after a single male approaches a female away from a group. There is no long-term pair formation.

Young Arctic hares are born in June in the open with no shelter, and are visited by the mother for nursing on a precise 18 or 19 h cycle. As young hares grow, they leave the nursing site for short periods, but then group together at the nursing site and huddle for about 1 h before the mother arrives for the next feeding. The time spent huddled together decreases as they grow. Young hares are weaned abruptly in late August, but continue to rest and feed together at least into September.

Other than avian predators, such as gyrfalcons and snowy owls, hares are also hunted by wolves and even Arctic foxes will attempt to capture young hares or injured adults.

In both Greenland and on Ellesmere Island, archaeological sites have been found where stones and boulders have been placed to form drives for hares. Traditional use of hares, other than as food, includes the use of skins for clothing and rope; the hind feet are used as brushes.

With an increase in Arctic tourism, and continued traditional hunting by northerners, the importance of Arctic hares, a highly visible species, is growing. Arctic hares are regularly seen and are a popular feature in Ellesmere Island's Quttinirpaaq National Park.

David R. Gray

See also Snowshoe Hare

Further Reading

Aniskowicz, B. Theresa, Heather Hamilton, David R. Gray & Connie Downes, "Nursing behaviour of arctic hares (Lepus arcticus)."In Canada's Missing Dimension: Science and History in the Canadian Arctic Islands, edited by C. Richard Harington, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature, 1990 Gray, David R., "Behavioural adaptations to arctic winter; shelter-seeking in the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)" Arctic, 46 (1993): 340-453 Gray, David R. & Heather Hamilton, "Hare revelations: the bizarre behaviour of the arctic hare." Nature Canada, 11 (1982): 48-54

Parker, Gerald R., "Morphology, reproduction, diet, and behaviour of the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus monstrabilis) on Axel Heiberg Island, Northwest Territories." Canadian Field-Naturalist, 91 (1977): 8-18

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