Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyLeporidae
GenusLepus (1)
SizeLength: 48 - 67.8 cm (1)
Weightup to 550 g (2)

The Arctic hare is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of the world’s largest hares (2), the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) has a distinctive, uniformly white summer coat, aside from the tips of each ear, which are black (3) (4) (5). The thick white fur provides both warmth and camouflage against the Arctic hare’s snowy surroundings (3) (6). After the spring moult, the fur of southern populations is replaced with a shorter grey-brown fur (3) (4) (5). More northerly populations also moult into shorter fur, but retain the white colouration year-round (3) (4) (7).

The female Arctic hare is larger than the male, and also begins to moult earlier in spring (3).

The Arctic hare has very thick fur and a relatively large, compact body compared with other hare species (3) (5). The small size of the ears and other extremities helps to reduce heat loss in cold conditions (2) (3), while the paws are heavily padded with thick, coarse fur which helps the Arctic hare to walk on the surface of snow without sinking (5) (6). The well adapted claws and incisors enable the Arctic hare to dig through snow and feed on the plants beneath (5).

Distress calls are made by hare and rabbit species when they are caught by predators, but all other communication is thought to be done by scent marking. The glands which secrete the scent are found underneath the chin and in the groin area (8).

There are nine recognized subspecies of the Arctic hare: Lepus arcticus andersoniLepus arcticus arcticus, Lepus arcticus bangsii, Lepus arcticus banksicola, Lepus arcticus groenlandicus, Lepus arcticus hubbardi, Lepus arcticus labradorius, Lepus arcticus monstrabilis, and Lepus arcticus porsildi (1). The subspecies vary in range, moulting behaviour and appearance, with northern populations remaining white year-round (4) (6) (7).

The Arctic hare has the most northerly range of any hare or rabbit species (2). Spreading from Greenland to Alaska (7), the range of the Arctic hare also includes Labrador, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Nunavut and Quebec in northern Canada (1) (7) (8).

The Arctic hare is predominantly found on the hillsides and rocky areas of Arctic tundra, where there is no tree cover (1) (3) (7). This species lives mostly on the ground, but will occasionally create dens or use natural shelters during times of cold weather (1). During winter, the Arctic hare has been known to move into forested habitats (1) (5). 

An omnivorous species, the Arctic hare’s diet is mostly composed of woody plants such as Arctic willow (Salix arctica) (1) (3) (9), as well as grasses, herbs, berries, buds, shrubs and lichens (4) (9). An opportunistic feeder, the Arctic hare may also eat small animals and carrion (3). This species has an acute sense of smell, which enables it to locate and dig for food in the snow (4) (9).

The Arctic hare runs erratically and leaps while running away from a predator to try and escape (5) (6), sometimes reaching speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour (5). Its low body fat content and long legs compared with its body size, give it a highly efficient form of locomotion (5).

The Arctic hare is mostly solitary. However, during winter months, this species may demonstrate ‘flocking’ behaviour, sometimes gathering in large groups of up to 3,000 individuals (3). This unique behaviour may offer the Arctic hare protection from predators such as the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) making it harder for predators to catch an individual without being seen (2). The ‘flock’ are synchronised with each other and are able to move, run and change direction at the same time (3).

The breeding season of the Arctic hare begins in April or May (5), with the male pursuing the female and biting her neck, which often draws blood (3). The gestation period is around 53 days (1) (5), with females usually giving birth to a litter of between 2 and 8 young hares, or ‘leverets’, in June or July (4) (5). The female Arctic hare gives birth in a depression in the ground, which is lined with grass, moss and fur or sheltered under rocks (2) (3) (5).

Arctic hare leverets are born at an advanced stage of development, with fur and open eyes (6). The female returns to feed the leverets every 18 hours with highly nutritious milk (3) (8), eventually leaving them to fend for themselves when they are fully weaned after 8 or 9 weeks (2) (5).

The moult into winter or summer pelage is dependent on the number of daylight hours. When the Arctic hare detects a change in the number of daylight hours, hormones are released which trigger the moult (3).

The Arctic hare is threatened by habitat loss in the southern part of its range, as well as by unrestricted hunting in certain areas. It may also come under threat in the future due to climate change. However, the Arctic hare is not currently believed to be at high risk of extinction due to any of these factors (1).

Some parts of the Arctic hare’s range have seasonal limits on the harvest levels of this species (1). There are not known to be any other specific conservation measures currently in place for the Arctic hare.

Find out more about the conservation of hares and rabbits:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Moore, P.D. (2008) Tundra. Facts on File, New York.
  3. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  4. Bowers, N., Bowers, R. and Kaufman, K. (2007) Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
  5. Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (Eds.) (2003) Wild Mammals of North America. Biology, Management and Conservation. Second Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  6. Burton, L.D. (2010) Fish and Wildlife. Principles of Zoology and Ecology. Third Edition. Delmar, New York.
  7. Murie, O.J. and Elbroch, M. (2005) Animal Tracks. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
  8. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  9. MobileReference (2008) Encyclopedia of North American Mammals. MobileReference, Boston.