Arctic Hares are found in northern Canada down to Newfoundland in the east and around the coasts of Greenland. Another similar species, the Mountain Hare, Lepus timidus is found in Arctic Europe and Asia, both are animals of the high Arctic, it is possible that both are actually the same species.

Arctic Hare - Facts and Adaptations
Lepus arcticus

Arctic hare in winter coat

   arctic hare facts Basics

Average Weight: 2.5 to 5.5kg (6-12 lbs), up to 7kg (15.5lb), females tend to be larger than males.

Average Length: 48 to 68 cm long (19-28 inches), a short tail of 3-8cm (1-3 inches)

Breeding Season: April to mid-September, usually one or two litters per year with 5 to 6 leverets (baby hares) at a time. A depression in the ground or under rocks for shelter is used as a nest, usually lined with moss, fur and grass. Once born the young are left by the female who only returns to feed them with milk every 18 hours or so, they are fully weaned at 8-9 weeks. The young from one year are ready to breed the following year. Arctic hares tend to disperse during the breeding season, individuals pair up and adopt a mating territory, males may have more than one partner. They have a rapid ability to reproduce and build up numbers.

Estimated world population: - Unknown, widespread species with what are thought to be healthy populations though little monitoring is taking place. Populations undergo cyclic fluctuations.

Diet and Feeding: Mainly herbivorous though can act as an opportunist predator or scavenger, they eat a wide range of foods, mosses, lichens, buds, berries, leaves, roots, woody plants, seaweed and bark depending on the season and availability. During the winter, they will dig through snow to find buried food. They have been reported to scavenge on fish and other meat, they eat snow to get water.

Conservation status: Least Concern.

Habitat and Distribution: The Arctic Hare lives mainly above the northern tree line in the Arctic tundra, though some move below the tree line in winter, they live at altitudes up to 900m. They are not found on sea ice being herbivores dependent on land plants for food.

Predators: Arctic wolf, arctic fox, red fox, grey wolf, lynx, snowy owl, gyrfalcon, ermine and Canadian lynx. The smaller predators such as ermine, snowy owl and arctic fox will usually prey on younger hares. The arctic hare was historically important to Native Americans who hunted them for their fur to make clothing and for food. Such hunting still goes on, though affects only a small amount of the population (around 5%) and probably has no impact on the overall numbers.

Arctic hares distribution
Distribution range of the Arctic Hare - Lepus arcticus and Mountain Hare - Lepus timidus

  What are Arctic Hares like? how do they survive?

Arctic hares have up to 20% of their body mass as fat for insulation. this is a relatively low amount for a cold climate animal and the lack of weight that this brings enables them to reach 60kmh (40 mph) while running to escape predators. They have a number of anatomical, behavioural and physiological adaptations that allow them to survive in an extreme climate successfully.

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare in winter coat

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare in summer coat in Newfoundland

Arctic Hare Adaptations:

  • Relatively low surface area to volume ratio (anatomical) - Like many cold climate animals, compared to their warmer climate cousins, arctic hares have proportionally shorter limbs, ears and a stockier build. They have less surface area for their volume to lose heat from.

  • Thick camouflaged seasonal fur (anatomical) - The coat of the arctic hare is always thick and highly insulating. Those hares in the southern parts of their distribution grow two distinctly different coats over the course of a year, predominantly white in the winter and blue-grey in the summer months so they can blend into the landscape more easily all year round. Those hares that live in the more northern parts of their range retain their white coat all year round  though their summer coat is shorter than their winter coat.

  • Paws heavily padded with fur (anatomical) - to spread their weight while walking on soft snow, to insulate them from snow and ice and also provide for grip on slippery surfaces.

  • Arctic Hare
    Lone winter Arctic Hare

    Arctic Hare
    Arctic Hares flocking in the winter

  • Shelter in burrows they dig into the ground or under the snow during very cold weather (behavioral) - A relatively quick and easy way of avoiding the worst of the weather by tunneling beneath the snow to avoid the biting wind and gain extra insulation from the snow. While the temperature in the snow hole is still below freezing, it can be much higher than outside and is of course out of the fur-ruffling wind.

  • Often live in groups in the winter months (behavioural) - Living in groups in the coldest weather means that arctic hares can huddle for warmth, it also helps them to spot predators sneaking up on them and to evade predators by confusing them as to which hare to chase so wearing them out and making a kill less likely. This is known as "flocking", groups may form of dozens of individuals or up to 3,000 or more. When on the move a flock moves and changes direction at the same time. They disperse again in the spring when the breeding season starts.

  • Very keen sense of smell (anatomical/physiological) - To help the arctic hares to find food beneath the the snow, knowing where to dig.

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare in snow and bushes

Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare

Arctic wolves vs the Arctic hare, video 2 mins 10 secs - BBC

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license - Arctic Hare in winter coat - Steve Sayles
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license - Top title picture and Lone winter Arctic Hare - Jeffery J. Nichols, User: Arctic gnome | Distribution map - composite from IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, spatial data | Arctic Hare in Newfoundland - Gilad.rom | Arctic Hare (white coat, lying down, grass/soil background) - Ansgar Walk
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license - Arctic Hares flocking, inc. top page banner - Anton Dit