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The Arctic is home to many different animals. The Arctic hare is one of the largest members of the family of mammals called Leporidae, which consists of hares and rabbits. The scientific name, Lepus arcticus, simply means “hare of the Arctic".
Image: The skull of an Arctic hare.
Why this species is important
Though not an extremely important food source for Inuit and other northern peoples, the Arctic hare is commonly hunted for food. Traditionally, hare skins were used to make children’s clothes and winter boot liners while the hind feet were used as cleaning brushes. Arctic hares are hard to spot in most seasons because of their seasonal change in colour. They are also known for gathering in large herds in some parts of the Arctic.
Arctic hare and climate change
The Arctic hare can be found throughout the Arctic. It ranges north from the treeline, across Canada and Greenland and all the way to the Arctic's most northern coastline. As Arctic hares occupy much of the Arctic, climate change impacts are unclear. It could have very little effect on the range of the mammals if once-barren areas see an increase in vegetation. However, other competing mammals could also move north and encroach upon the Arctic hare’s habitat. The impacts of climate change, therefore, are unclear.
This illustration depicts the planet's air temperature and how it is expected to change over a 90 year period. Sliding the scale from left (2000) to right (2090), the air temperature increases. As the climate warms the average air temperature will rise by at least 12°C.
2090 (*projected air temperature)
2000 (air temperature)
Possible effects of climate change
As Arctic hares already occupy much of the Canadian Arctic, climate change would have little effect on the range in which these mammals live. As the climate becomes warmer, once-barren areas could see an increase in vegetation and food, leading to a rise in the number of hares. Arctic hares have evolved to blend in with their environment to make escaping predators easier. During the summer months, hares in the northern part of the Arctic have a mostly white coat, while those living in the south are grey. If the climate changes, these variations in colour may also change.
The breeding cycle
At the start of the breeding cycle during springtime, male Arctic hares perform a unique display, which may influence the female hares' readiness for mating. Once females begin their breeding cycle, “March madness” ensues, with males approaching, following, and chasing any female hare that appears. Female Arctic hares nurse their young on a suckling schedule of every 18.5 hours, instead of the usual 24 hours. When a mother leaves its young after a short time of nursing, young hares are able to anticipate when she will return many hours later. Each day they move closer to where she will come into view, allowing for a daily change in time and place for nursing. These tactics prevent the possibility of predators clueing in on a daily feeding schedule or location and attacking the young hares.
The Arctic hare is larger than an Arctic fox. The thick winter fur on its ears and body help to reduce heat loss in the cold environment, while the thick fur on the hind feet allow the Arctic hare to sit for hours on the cold snow. The claws on their front feet help them to dig through snow to feed on the plants below. Arctic hares have large eyes located at the side of their head. The position of their eyes gives hares an extremely wide range of vision. Without turning their head, they can see almost 360° around them, making it difficult for predators to approach unseen.
The Arctic hare
Watch this video of an Arctic hare.
Transcript: The Arctic hare
The Arctic hare resting in the snow. Another shot of the Arctic hare in the sitting position, he is moving his head from side to side and appears to be on alert. A different shot of the Arctic hare, again, moving his head from side to side, he appears to be on alert. He suddenly takes off.