By Kim Hambright, assistant editor
I first developed a fondness for rabbits as a child. My favorite bedtime story was The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and I could listen to his clever quips and mischievous ideas all day. Even now, the thought of product testing on my furry friends or the sight of an accidental road kill triggers in me a visceral reaction, which is why I feel strongly about the fate of the snowshoe hare.
Native to the mountain ranges of North America, snowshoe hares live something of a double-life. At the start of winter, their fur coats change from an earthy brown to a pure white, and at the beginning of spring, they change back again. Their natural camouflage enables them to hide from lynx, coyote, and other predators all year around. But what will happen to them as their climate continues to change?
According to scientist Gerald A. Meehl, the earth has once again entered a period of “rapid global warming,” and 2015 was just confirmed as the hottest year in recorded history. Among other things, this means that snowfall will likely begin later in the winter and end earlier in the spring each year. For a subtropical dweller like myself–I live in Florida–this may not seem like a huge deal, but it could mean the end of the line for mountain locals like the snowshoe hare and glacial inhabitants like the polar bear and Adélie penguin.
Currently, the snowshoe hares are only “mismatched” from their environment about one week out of the year, but scientists predict that this number could jump to nearly eight weeks by the end of the century. Since the survival rate of the hares decreases roughly seven percent when they are “mismatched,” Marketa Zimova of North Carolina State University estimates that the snowshoe hares will soon suffer a steep population decline. Can they evolve to adapt?
Research suggests that the snowshoe hares rely on the length of the day, not temperature, to determine when they will molt. The impulse to molt is instinctive, rather than deliberate. Unfortunately for the hares, an adequate adaptation is unlikely to occur anytime soon. So what will become of them? How will they survive, their white coats standing out for so long?
Read more about climate change and the fate of the snowshoe hares and other animals here: