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Climate Change Leaves Hares Wearing The Wrong Colors

Sep 8, 2013
Originally published on September 8, 2013 1:40 pm

The effects of climate change often happen on a large scale, like drought or a rise in sea level. In the hills outside Missoula, Mont., wildlife biologists are looking at a change to something very small: the snowshoe hare.

Life as snowshoe hare is pretty stressful. For one, almost everything in the forest wants to eat you.

Alex Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, lists the animals that are hungry for hares.

"Lynx, foxes, coyotes, raptors, birds of prey. Interestingly enough, young hares, their main predator is actually red squirrels."

Yes, even squirrels. Kumar and field technician Tucker Seitz spend months searching these woods for hares. Seitz is wearing a T-shirt with their mascot — a pink bunny.

"Yep, we embrace the pink bunny," Kumar says.

"There's pink bunnies on all of our trucks," Seitz adds.

We'd spotted a hare in the brush just as we drove up — light brown with large back feet.

Kumar listens for signals from hares they've already put radio collars on.

They catch other hares with wire traps about the size of a breadbox, with some apple as bait. Most of the hares they track live less than a year — a hazard of being what Kumar calls "the cheeseburger of the ecosystem."

But snowshoe hares have a trick up their sleeve: camouflage. They're brown during the summer, but turn stark white for the snowy winter months. Kumar says it works.

"There's times when you're tracking them and you know they're really, really close, and you just can't find them," he says.

Hares switch color in the spring and fall in response to light, when the days get longer or shorter. But that means they're at the mercy of the weather. If the snow comes late, you get a white hare on brown ground.

"And they really think that they're camouflaged," Kumar says. "They act like we can't see them. And it's pretty embarrassing for the hare."

Kumar calls this "mismatch," and it's becoming more of a concern with climate change.

"If the hares are consistently molting at the same time, year after year, and the snowfall comes later and melts earlier, there's going to be more and more times when hares are mismatched," he says.

Scott Mills of North Carolina State University leads the research. He says they're finding that mismatched hares die at higher rates. That's a concern for the threatened Canada lynx, which mainly eats these hares.

"It's a picture that paints a thousand words," Mills says. "It's a very clear connection to a single climate change stressor."

Mills says hares might be able to adapt over time. Some snowshoe hares in Washington State don't turn white at all. Mills is trying to figure out whether hares and other wildlife can adapt as fast as the climate is changing.

"But really what we don't know very well is how fast is too fast?" he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The effects of climate change are often seen on a large scale, like drought or a rise in sea level. But in the hills outside Missoula, Mont., wildlife biologists are looking at a change to something very small: the snowshoe hare. Lauren Sommer, of member station KQED, reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Life as a snowshoe hare is pretty stressful. For one, almost everything in the forest wants to eat you.

ALEX KUMAR: Lynx, foxes, coyotes, raptors, birds of prey. Interestingly enough, young hares, their main predator is actually red squirrels.

SOMMER: Yes, even squirrels. Alex Kumar is a graduate student at the University of Montana. He and field technician Tucker Seitz spend months searching these woods for hares. Seitz is wearing a T-shirt with their mascot - a pink bunny.

TUCKER SEITZ: Yeah, it's...

KUMAR: ...we embrace the pink bunny.

SEITZ: There's pink bunnies on all of our trucks.

SOMMER: We'd spotted a hare in the brush just as we drove up - light brown with large back feet. Kumar listens for signals from hares they've already put radio collars on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)

SOMMER: They catch others hares with wire traps about the size of a breadbox, with some apple as bait. Most of the hares they track live less than a year - a hazard of being what Kumar calls the cheeseburger of the ecosystem. But snowshoe hares have a trick up their sleeve: camouflage. They're brown during the summer, but turn stark white for the snowy winter months. Kumar says it works.

KUMAR: There's times when you're tracking them, and you know that they're really, really close; and you just can't find them.

SOMMER: Hares switch color in the spring and fall, in response to light when the days get longer or shorter. But that means they're at the mercy of the weather. If the snow comes late, you get a white hare on brown ground.

KUMAR: And they really think that they're camouflaged, they act like we can't see them. And it's pretty embarrassing for the hare.

SOMMER: Kumar calls this mismatch, and it's becoming more of a concern with climate change.

KUMAR: If the hares are consistently molting at the same time year after year, and the snowfall comes later and melts earlier, there's going to be more and more times when hares are mismatched.

SCOTT MILLS: It's a picture that paints a thousand words.

SOMMER: Scott Mills, of North Carolina State University, leads the research. He says they're finding that mismatched hares die at higher rates. That's a concern for the threatened Canada lynx, which eats mainly these hares.

MILLS: It's a very clear connection to a single climate change stressor.

SOMMER: Mills says hares might be able to adapt over time. Some snowshoe hares in Washington state don't turn white at all.

MILLS: But really, what we really don't know very well is: How fast is too fast?

SOMMER: What Mills is trying to figure out is whether hares and other wildlife can adapt as fast as the climate is changing.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in Missoula.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE RABBIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.