The snowshoe hare
If you’ve invested any time in nature documentaries, you’ve undoubtedly come across this image: Alaska’s snowy paradise, the boreal forest. Everything appears serene until, perhaps with a swell of dramatic music, a snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) leaps into the frame, followed hotly by a Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis).
With the lynx’s laser-focus and seemingly inexhaustible speed, it appears impossible that the hare will get away. Yet, lo and behold, the scene usually fades out as the hare makes its escape, dashing into some impenetrable cover or simply vanishing altogether. Like Houdini squirming his way out of a straitjacket.
The snowshoe hare’s crafty reputation goes beyond the big screen. In traditional Ojibwa tales out of Great Lakes Canada, for instance, the hare is known as a trickster, utilizing the ol’ sleight-of-hand to steal fire from the gods. In India, a hare fooled a lion into eating its own reflection. In Scotland, they shapeshift. You get the idea.
Shotaro Shiratsuru is what I’d call a snowshoe hare expert. He grew up in the south of Japan and played collegiate-level baseball before following his interest in wildlife ecology to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (where he also helped me pass chemistry). Now, having worked his way through a master’s degree and the better part of a doctorate, he has a comprehensive understanding of the snowshoe hare’s role within northern ecosystems.
According to their biology, it’s not surprising that hares are regarded as supernatural. What seems to us like magicians’ tricks are really just adaptations—traits derived from millions of years of being a keystone prey species. The hare’s namesake feet, for example. They carry the animals almost effortlessly over the deep snows of their habitat, giving them quick escapes and even the illusion of flight. Its fur is another trick.
Every Alaskan knows that hares change color—brown in the summertime, white in the winter—and this “seasonal molt” does much to aid their survival. One of Shiratsuru’s more fascinating studies points to the hare’s ability to proactively avoid predation in this way; they limit activity to nighttime hours and remain virtually immobile during the day. But it’s only through their variable color that this strategy works: they can pass themselves off as invisible.
Hares have a lot to deal with. Being a keystone prey species means that they affect a vast portion of the trophic cascade—that is, the food chain—and can have major impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. There’s an entire rap sheet of Alaskan predators that would eagerly devour some snowshoe hare tartare.
But let’s return to our lynx-hare chase scene. It’s one of the most impressive examples of predator-prey interaction in the world. The two species follow one another in a 10-year population cycle, with reliable peaks where populations boom and subsequent crashes where they can seem almost nonexistent. It’s a pattern with potentially drastic effects on ecosystems, yet it remains a head-scratcher for ecologists. What happens if snow melts early or late, and the timing of the hare’s seasonal molt makes it even more vulnerable to predation? What if hares overpopulate and exhaust local vegetation to unprecedented levels? What’s clear is that these questions are important to keep asking, and I rest a little easier knowing that biologists like Shiratsuru are on the job.
The next time you see Alaska’s magician, the snowshoe hare—or think you see one—take a moment to consider what an important animal you’re looking at. They might steal fire or shapeshift, they might trick lions and swindle, but most of the time they simply keep their ecosystems—Alaska’s boreal among them—glued together.
That’s their greatest trick of all.
Joseph Jackson spends most of his winter free time chasing snowshoe hares with a rimfire rifle (and being humbled by their bag of tricks). He has written for a variety of outdoor magazines, Alaska included, and makes a mean hare taco. You can visit his website at josephdjacksonwriter.com.