Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus)

Also known as: snowshoe rabbit, varying hare
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyLeporidae
GenusLepus (1)
SizeLength: 36 - 52 cm (2)
Average weight: c. 1.3 kg (2)
Top facts

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

The smallest species of the Lepus genus, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) is a rabbit-sized mammal that is incredibly adapted to its seasonally variable environment (3). The snowshoe hare is named for its hind feet, which are adapted for travelling across snowy ground and are therefore noticeably large relative to the hare’s body mass (2).

The fur of the snowshoe hare is extremely thick and has one of the highest insulation values of all mammals (4). Another adaptation which ensures that the snowshoe hare can survive in an environment that drastically changes seasonally is that its fur changes colour between summer and winter. In winter, almost all individuals undergo moulting that transforms the hare’s brown summer coat into one that is pure white apart from the black-tipped ears and the feet, which remain grey. It is thought that this is enables the snowshoe hare to become camouflaged, and has evolved to coincide with snow cover (2). The snowshoe hare’s relatively short ears are also an adaptation to reduce heat loss in the winter (4).

The female of this species tends to weigh approximately 10 to 25 percent more than the male (2).

The snowshoe hare has been reported to make many characteristic hare vocalisations, which are mainly emitted as a result of fear or stress associated with capture or predation. A common snowshoe hare vocalisation is a high-pitched squeal, and other noises include whines, grunts and clicking sounds (2).

Currently, there are 15 recognised subspecies of the snowshoe hare (1) (3).

The snowshoe hare has the most extensive range of all New World hares and is found in many northern and western U.S. states, as well as in all provinces of Canada except Nunavut (1) (3).

In the U.S., the snowshoe hare inhabits forests of the western states of Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and Colorado, as well as small areas of New Mexico, Utah and California. This species also occurs in the Great Lakes region and in several eastern states including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Mountainous parts of West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia are also inhabited by the snowshoe hare, but these populations have recently been in decline (1).

The snowshoe hare is generally found in evergreen, boreal and mixed deciduous forests (1) (2) (5) as well as scrub habitats (2), unlike other Lepus species which prefer open grassy areas (5). This species requires habitats with dense vegetation for both keeping warm and to hide from predators. Such cover may be provided by shrubs, immature trees, or both, but is usually uniformly distributed across the habitat (2). 

The snowshoe hare is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, being active at twilight and at night, and sheltering under logs or bushes during the day. Its daily movements cover about 1.6 hectares, but it may have to travel greater distances when food is scarce (5).

The snowshoe hare is herbivorous, and its diet varies depending on the season (2). In the summer, this species’ diet consists mainly of leafy vegetation such as grasses, sedges, ferns and forbs (2) (5), although twigs and bark are also consumed (5). Clover and dandelions are eaten when available. In the winter the diet is more varied and depends on local plant composition, consisting mostly of woody browse and including plants such as blueberry, maple, balsam fir, birch, spruce and willow (2).

The snowshoe hare is a social species and has been spotted in groups of up to 25 individuals in one forest clearing at night, unlike most other Lepus species which are solitary until the mating season (5).

The breeding season of the snowshoe hare begins in mid-March and lasts until September, and the female hare may have up to four litters per year. Although the average litter size is approximately four young, as many as ten young have been recorded (5), and the first litter of the year is generally smaller than subsequent ones (2). The gestation period is usually 36 days (5), but ranges from 34 to 40 days (2).

Young snowshoe hares, known as leverets, are born in nests which consist of shallow depressions dug into the ground. They are born with a full coat of fur and with their eyes open (2) (5), and remain concealed within dense vegetation (5). The female snowshoe hare visits the leverets to nurse them (5).

The main predators of the snowshoe hare are the lynx (Lynx canadensis), coyote (Canis latrans) and fisher (Martes pennanti). However, other predators are numerous and include the bobcat (Lynx rufus), wolf (Canis lupus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), black bear (Ursus americanus), wolverine (Gulo gulo), barred owl (Strix varis) and raven (Corvus corax) (2).

As well as being prey to a number of forest animals, the snowshoe hare is hunted mainly for food by humans, particularly in Canada (5). Habitat loss and fragmentation, and possibly climate change, also threaten populations of the snowshoe hare (1). Clearcutting of forests, whereby most or all of the trees in an area are cut down, reduces the area of ideal habitat for the snowshoe hare, which tends not to venture into open areas (2).

Although the snowshoe hare currently has a stable population trend and is not currently considered to be threatened, there are some conservation strategies in place for this species (1).

In order to increase populations of the snowshoe hare in some southern states, hunting has been banned either permanently or temporarily, although it is not certain how effective this has been (1).

In some areas, snowshoe hares have been bred in captivity and introduced to the wild in order to artificially boost populations. However, this has not been overly successful as many of these hares die during transport, and those that are introduced to the habitat are extremely susceptible to predation (1) (2).

Predator control has been suggested as a means of reducing mortality in the snowshoe hare, but this method produces several challenges for conservationists. Further research into various aspects of the snowshoe hare’s ecology has been recommended, as well as long-term monitoring of the species’ population trends, and studies on the impact of specific forestry management (2). In addition, the snowshoe hare occurs in several U.S. National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), including Koyukuk NWR, Red Rock Lakes NWR and Kodiak NWR, which are likely to afford it some protection (1).

Find out more about the snowshoe hare, its relatives and their conservation:

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 (July, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. 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, Maryland.
  3. Chapman, J.A., Flux, J.E. and IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group (1991) Rabbits, Hares, and Pikas: Status Survey And Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1990-010.pdf
  4. Merritt, J.F. (2010) The Biology of Small Mammals. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  5. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker’s Mammals of the World. Volume 2. Sixth Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.