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Climate Change: The Snowshoe Hare’s Worst Nightmare

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showshoe hare

Regardless of what’s causing climate change and global warming, its effects are being felt all over, though you probably won’t be able to tell judging from the way I sweat when I’m mowing the lawn, because it seems to be the same bucket-full that it’s been since the early 1990s. Also, nothing scientific should ever be judged by my sweat, for everyone’s benefit. But shifts in weather patterns are becoming particularly brutal for the snowshoe hare, a species whose survival instincts have relied on its ability to change color and camouflage itself with the seasons. But now that everything is going hooey, their numbers are dropping, and they don’t even seem to realize the problem.

Wildlife biologist Alex Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, and field technician Tucker Seitz have spent months tracking hares in the land outside Missoula, Montana. And they’re not alone, since the predator list for the small creature is pretty lengthy. Their existence is definitely a hare-owing one. (Sorry.) Snowshoe hares have evolved to change colors to match the seasons, giving them a leg up on their long-eared brethren. But it isn’t the actual weather that causes them to change colors. Their fur responds to changes in light, as the length of the days change. When the days are longer in the summer, the hares are brown and able to blend in with nature all around them. When the days get shorter in the winter, their fur turns white, which allows them to match up with their snowy surroundings. It’s hard to argue that this is a definite advantage the hare has over many others in the animal kingdom. A pink-polka-dotted legless hare would definitely have gotten the short end.

Now that winter weather is delayed, the snowshoe hares are turning white before the snow falls, so they tend to stick out like a sore thumb on the brown ground. They call it a “mismatch,” and they say it’s going to become more of a problem as the years go by.

“If the hares are consistently molting at the same time, year after year, and the snowfall comes later and melts earlier, there’s going to be more and more times when hares are mismatched,” says Kumar. “And they really think that they’re camouflaged. They act like we can’t see them. And it’s pretty embarrassing for the hare.”

This research is being led by Scott Mill of North Carolina State University, who says that the death rates for these mismatched hares are rising, and it’s a concern for creatures such as the Canadian lynx, an already threatened animal that mostly subsists on these hares. And then we can assume whatever eats the lynx will be troubled, and then Soylent Green happens. Probably.

There’s still hope that the hares could adapt before it all goes south, so to speak. Not all snowshoe hares change colors, and Mills wants to find out if the animals will be able to change this behavior at the same rate the climate is changing. If nothing else, maybe they can learn how to sew camo jackets.

So, if snowshoe hares end up playing a big part in the climate change aspect of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, don’t be surprised.

Comments

  1. Ric says:

    I’d STRONGLY advise at keeping stuff like this off here. You’ll lose at least half of your readership. Although I do agree that this is science fiction.

  2. TheTinger says:

    Interesting, Reminds me of the peppered moth, which always fascinated me…human technology influencing natural selection and evolution of a species. Neither a good nor a bad thing in my opinion, I just find the interaction fascinating. And no I’m not trolling the crazies by using those naughty science (boo!) terms…just an honest post.
    I STRONGLY advise you to keep up the science and the scifi posting – I like both on GFR.

    • Ric says:

      We are rapidly diverging from ‘predictions’ of even 10 years ago. Models keep being to get back in line with reality. Ice sheets are growing and we are cooling. Scientists let ‘beliefs’ interfere with their science on a daily basis (any scientist who ‘believes’ in god, for example). GFR is an aggregator and can easily be replaced if they want to go down that path.

      • TheTinger says:

        Roger that, and respect your point. We model, and we adjust based on data. Then we remodel and we adjust. And by “we” I mean human beings, not necessarily scientists. The scientific method allows for a lot of flexibility and “test a little, learn a little.” Adherents of mass religions do the same, they just do the adjusting a tad slower. The process for adjusting doctrine/dogma apparently is more involved than that for adjusting scientific theories/hypotheses. We may well be cooling. Doesn’t alter the fact that organisms can affect their environment. That seems obvious to me…see it every day in my back yard. And given the power we (and our technology) have developed, it also seems pretty obvious to me that we can impact to a degree that some other organisms can’t. Like I said, I don’t assign a value to that. I am fascinated by the whole interaction between human technology and the natural world. But I certainly wouldn’t deny the possibility that it’s happening.

        Yes, scientists for sure let “beliefs” interfere with their science. That’s what humans do. For example, the belief in cause and effect. Or probability. Or the laws of physics. But beyond that, I think the scientific community is pretty bereft of higher level beliefs that influence the body of knowledge (such as “hey let’s all believe that humans are influencing the global temperature, and form a conspiracy to generate fake evidence”). They’re just plodding along, doing their jobs as professionals. Are they laboring under false beliefs? Maybe….like the aforementioned belief in basic cause and effect, which may well be misguided.

        Anyhooo…To STRONGLY advise, and then to say “you can be easily replaced”…sounds a bit strong in response to a post about bunnies that is clearly based on scientific research.

        Sorry for the lengthy response…I was putting it down as it came to me.