Climate Change: The Snowshoe Hare’s Worst Nightmare

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

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.