E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Lepus americanus Erxleben, 1777
Snowshoe Hare; Snowshoe Hare; Varying Hare
Family: Leporidae

© Claude Schweizer  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #126115)


Distribution of Lepus americanus in British Columbia.
Source: Map courtesy of David Nagorsen

Species Information

The Snowshoe Hare is a distinctive and easily recognized 'rabbit' because of its larger size, large "snowshoe' feet, long ears, and all white colouring in winter. It is a medium-sized hare that is 443 mm (388 to 530 mm) in total length, and weighs 1.34 kg. The large furred feet act as snowshoes, and prevent it from sinking into the snow. In winter, the Snowshoe Hare is white with noticeable black-tipped ears. In spring and fall, the coat is a mix of white and brown. In summer the dorsal coat turns brown, while the ventral coat and the bottom of the feet remain white. Some low elevation populations in the Fraser River valley and the Cascades (areas with sporadic snow cover) are brown in winter (Nagorsen pers. comm. 2011). These smaller hares are currently recognized as a subspecies (washingtonii), however genetic work is needed to assess this taxonomy. The smaller Fraser Valley hares may be confused with the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) because of similar size and colouration. However, the lack of a triangular brown nape on the back of the head and large hind feet distinguish the Snowshoe Hare from the cottontail and other rabbit species (Nagorsen 2005). They are similar to Nuttall's Cottontail in the Okanagan, which is smaller and has a prominent nape (Nagorsen pers. comm. 2011).

Biology


The Snowshoe Hare is nocturnal and does not hibernate.

One of the most interesting things about this mammal is its 10-year cycle and the interrelation with carnivore populations particularly the lynx (Nagorsen pers. comm. 2011).
Reproduction

The breeding season for Snowshoe Hare generally extends from January to October. Two to four young are born per litter; with up to four litters per year. Both sexes can begin mating in their first spring (Ellsworth et al. 2006). Young hares (leverets) are born with their eyes open, fully furred and become self-sufficient quickly. Hares require relatively undisturbed areas in which to raise their litters, often a shallow depression (called a "form") lined with belly pelage under downed wood, a brush pile or under a stump (Ellsworth et al. 2006). Data is not available regarding the breeding frequency or fecundity of the possible washingtonii subspecies hare population at Burnaby Lake Regional Park or L. a. washingtonii in general.
Diet

In summer, the Snowshoe Hare feeds on a variety of plants including grasses and ferns and leaves. In winter, it will eat twigs, bark and buds. It has been known to steal meat from baited traps and to eat dead rodents. Snowshoe Hares are sometimes seen feeding in small groups (Wikipedia 2009).
Predators

The Snowshoe Hare is one of the most important prey species in the northern boreal forest. Predators include the Lynx, Bobcat, Ermine, Coyote, Grey Wolf, Marten, Fisher, Red Fox, Golden Eagle, Goshawk, and Great Horned Owl. Lynx are almost totally dependent upon the Snowshow Hare.

Habitat


Snowshoe Hares in the Pacific Northwest prefer the dense cover of coniferous and mixed forests, with abundant understorey vegetation and thicket openings (Sullivan 1995). Hares in general prefer optimum densities of woody shrubs and small trees ranging from 4,600 to 33,210 stems per ha and vary with habitat type and stand age (Ellsworth et al 2006). Conversely, forests with open understories also lack thermal and security cover. Non-forested areas are usually avoided, as are stands comprised of seedlings and more mature forests that have little undergrowth (Ellsworth et al. 2006).

Distribution

Global Range

The Snowshoe Hare is found throughout the boreal regions of North America.
Distribution in British Columbia

In BC, the Snowshoe hare is found throughout the province, but does not occur on the coastal islands (Nagorsen 2005).

The smaller Fraser Valley hare appears to be restricted to lower elevation areas throughout the Fraser Valley Lowlands in BC, areas which generally correlate to reduced depth and duration of snow cover (Nagorsen 1983). The only widely observed breeding population of this smaller hare is at Burnaby Lake Regional Park in the lower Brunette Basin (Evely 2008, Zevit 2008). Based on road mortality reports and environmental assessment inventories, other populations may occur in areas of intact connected lower elevation forests from Burnaby Mountain to Mission (Nagorsen 2005, Greenbank et al. 2005, Zevit 2004 & 2005, Sheldon 2009) and south of the Fraser River east to the Chilliwack Valley (Henderson and Ryder 2005, Knopp 2009).

Conservation


The province of BC presently recognizes the Fraser Valley population of Snowshoe hares as a separate subspecies, Lepus americanus washingtonii. This subspecies was once widespread in the Lower Mainland, but is now red-listed in BC because of apparent decline resulting from urbanization (Nagorsen 2005). However, there is some question as to whether or not this is a valid subspecies, and genetic investigations are underway. This work and further field study may change the provincial status of the Fraser Valley hares.

Taxonomy


Fifteen subspecies of the Snowshoe Hare are recognized, with seven of these reported from British Columbia (Nagorsen 2005). However, genetic investigation of the subspecies is presently underway and may or may not support subspecies status (Nagorsen pers. comm. 2011). The seven subspecies recognized at this point, however, are:

1) Lepus americanus ssp. bairdii (southern Kootenay region of extreme southeastern BC)
2) L. a. ssp. cascadensis (coastal mountain ranges as far north as Jervis Inlet)
3) L. a. ssp. columbiensis (Rocky Mountains of southern BC)
4) L. a. ssp. dalli (northern B.C.)
5) L. a. spp. pallidus (interior plateau and coastal region from Jervis Inlet to Prince Rupert)
6) L. a. spp. pineus (possibly the Kootenay River valley at Creston and the Columbia River valley at Trail. Status is B.C. The distribution is not clear.)
7) L. a. spp. washingtonii (lower Fraser Valley).

There is no morphometic evidence to support the recognized 15 subspecies (Nagorsen 1985).

Comments


Morphometic analysis of Snowshoe Hares across their range by Nagorsen (1985) shows that they are largest in Eastern North America and smallest in the Pacific Northwest. Size is most consistent in central Canada. This may reflect environmental selection pressures on populations.

Status Information

Scientific NameOrigin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
Lepus americanusNativeS5YellowNot Listed
Lepus americanus washingtoniiNativeS1RedNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Photo Sources

Species References

Nagorsen, David W. 2005. Rodents and Lagomorphs of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum Handbook. Royal BC Museum, Victoria.

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2019. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2020-09-28 5:34:30 AM]
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