White-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii)

Also known as: prairie hare, white jack
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyLeporidae
GenusLepus (1)
SizeMale head-body length: 56.5 - 61.8 cm (2)
Female head-body length: 57.5 - 65.5 cm (2)
Male weight: 2.6 - 4.3 kg (2)
Female weight: 2.5 - 4.3 kg (2)

The white-tailed jackrabbit is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A large hare of North America, the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is most easily recognised by its long, antennae-like ears, which are grey on the outside, white and brown on the inside, and have conspicuous black tips. This species is the only jackrabbit that has two annual moults. During the summer, the thin, coarse coat is dark brown to greyish-brown on the upperparts and white or pale grey on the underparts. In northern parts of its range, where snowfall is regular, the white-tailed jackrabbit becomes all white during winter with some grey around the eyes and throat. However, in southern parts of its range, it only develops white sides. The tail, which gives this hare its common name, it white all year round, with a dusky stripe on the upper side (3) (4) (5). 

Built for speed, with a slender, lean body and well developed, long hind limbs, the white-tailed jackrabbit is capable of bursts of speed of up to 40 miles per hour. This athletic mammal is even able to jump higher than 3.6 metres (3).

A widespread species, the white-tailed jackrabbit is found across much of southern Canada and the central United States. Its range stretches from the Great Plains in Saskatchewan, south to the Rocky Mountains in extreme northern New Mexico, and east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, to Lake Michigan in Wisconsin (1) (6). 

The white-tailed jackrabbit is thought to be extinct in Missouri and possibly also Nebraska and Kansas (1).

The white-tailed jackrabbit is most commonly found in open prairie and plains, but also occurs in montane shrublands among pine forests and alpine tundra. It has been recorded up to elevations of over 4,000 metres in Colorado (1) (4). Where the white-tailed jackrabbit is in competition with the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), it tends to move to higher elevations (2).

Among the most solitary of hares, the white-tailed jackrabbit is usually found alone, and only briefly interacts with other hares during the breeding season (2). Breeding takes place from late February to mid-July, when groups of males chase females. This involves dashes, jumps and circling sprints and ends in a brief copulation. Female white-tailed jackrabbits may produce between 1 and 4 litters a year, usually of 4 or 5 young, after a gestation period of 30 to 43 days. The young have some ability to move around within half an hour of birth and begin foraging on their own at two weeks of age. The young are then weaned at one month old and are completely independent at two months (3). The white-tailed jackrabbit is thought to live for up to five years (1).

In summer, the white-tailed jackrabbit feeds on grasses, forbs and cultivated crops. At other times of the year, this species browses on twigs, buds and bark. It is mostly active at dusk and dawn, resting in shallow depressions at the base of bushes during the day (1).

While the population status of the white-tailed jackrabbit is currently unclear, declines have been observed in many areas. In Yellowstone National Park, where this species was once considered abundant, there have been no sightings since the 1990s, while in Grand Teton National Park, there have only been three sightings since 1978 (1). The white-tailed jackrabbit has also not been seen in British Colombia since 1980 (3). The reasons behind these declines are unknown, but it is possibly due to a combination of severe weather, disease, predation, habitat destruction and habitat degradation by livestock (1). 

An additional threat to the white-tailed jackrabbit is competition with the black-tailed jackrabbit. This more common species has spread with the expansion of agriculture as it has a generalist diet and can exploit habitats degraded by grazing livestock. Where both the white-tailed and black-tailed jackrabbits occur, the white-tailed jackrabbit tends to be displaced as it is less efficient at foraging in degraded habitats (1) (3). 

In some areas, the white-tailed jackrabbit is considered an agricultural pest, particularly of alfalfa, corn, soybeans and winter wheat, and has been persecuted as a result (7).

The white-tailed jackrabbit has not been the target of any known conservation measures. It is recommended that further research is conducted into this species’ biology and populations, as well as its relationship with the black-tailed jackrabbit, so that informed conservation measures may be made in future. It is also recommended that the white-tailed jackrabbit be removed from the list of vermin in the state of Wyoming (1).

Find out more about the white-tailed jackrabbit:

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:
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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: North American Mammals - White-tailed jackrabbit (June, 2011)
    http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=133
  3. University of Wisconsin - White-tailed jackrabbit (June, 2011)
    http://www.uwsp.edu/biology/facilities/vertebrates/Mammals%20of%20Wisconsin/Lepus%20townsendii/Lepus%20townsendii%20page.htm
  4. Idaho Museum of Natural History - White-tailed jackrabbit (June, 2011)
    http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/bio/mammal/Lagom/whja/wtja.htm
  5. Whitaker Jr, J.O. and Hamilton Jr, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
  6. Lim, B.K. (1987) Lepus townsendii. Mammalian Species, 288: 1-6.
  7. WildPro - White-tailed jackrabbit (June, 2011)
    http://wildpro.twycrosszoo.org/S/0MLagomorph/Leporidae/lepus/Lepus_townsendii.htm