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Snowshoe hares no longer turning white, for obvious reason

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, February 21, 2018, 3:10 PM - Experts refer to them as the "cheeseburger" of the ecosystem.

The snowshoe hare -- a cute and cuddly creature -- lives life on the run, usually surviving for about a year before being hunted by a fox or a coyote, among other animals.

Even squirrels have a taste for them.

Their best line of defense is camouflage. Snowshoe hares turn brown in the summer and white in the winter -- and this has worked well, until recently.

The change of colours is triggered by a change in daylight. Shorter days signify the onset of winter, causing coats to lighten.

But climate change is causing snow to fall later. Hares are turning white ahead of the snow, and becoming a virtual bulls-eye in the process.

Experts call this "mismatching" and say it's already shortened the hare's already brief lifespan. They've been observing the phenomenon in nature for a few years now.

"And they really think that they're camouflaged," Alex Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, told NPR in 2013. "They act like we can't see them. And it's pretty embarrassing for the hare."

VIDEO: A camouflaged snowshoe hare:

A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology suggests hares living in the eastern US, the Yukon and in western and eastern portions of Canada are struggling to keep pace with climate change.

"We trapped three hares in January that were almost completely brown, and it's the first time that has been recorded in eastern North America," lead researcher Laura Gigliotti told ScienceDaily.com in 2017. “There are hare populations in the Cascades in Washington that don't moult completely, but that had not been documented elsewhere.” 

Still -- the hares observed for the study appear to be adapting their behaviour to cope with their loss of camouflage. In Pennsylvania, hares were seen resting in spots that kept them hidden from predators -- unlike in the past, when they favoured warmer spots over visual obstructions. 

“Our results indicate that snowshoe hares may be able to adapt to future climate conditions via changes in pelage characteristics, metabolism and behaviour,” said Giglotti told ScienceDaily.

“Unfortunately, we don't know if they can adapt as quickly as climate change is occurring."

Only time will tell if the hares will learn to keep pace with a rapidly-changing environment.

Sources: NPR | Canadian Journal of Zoology | ScienceDaily

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