Arctic hares are the largest hares found in North America. While they’re brown or grey in the summer, they grow white fur in the winter to blend into the snow. Arctic hares in the northernmost regions stay white all year, though they always have black-tipped ears. They are an important food source for northern dwelling animals, but what does an arctic hare eat? Let’s dive deeper into why their diet is the way it is.
What Do Arctic Hares Eat?
Arctic hares are omnivores that mainly eat grass and leaves but will also eat berries, flowers, and other plant matter. They are nocturnal, and they forage at night to avoid detection by predators.
Arctic hares live on the tundra, in forests, grasslands, and shrubby areas. They do well in rocky terrain, unlike most other cold-weather animals. By most standards, arctic hares are considered folivores which means they eat leaves primarily. They also chow down on meat sources they encounter if given the opportunity. However, they do not hunt for prey.
While arctic hares mostly prefer plants, which make up 95% of their diet, they are known to nibble on meat and fish if given a chance. Their offspring are nursed until they’re old enough to forage on their own, which is after about two months in the nest.
Here’s a list of foods arctic hares eat:
- Dwarf Willow
- Mountain Sorrel
If an arctic hare comes upon a kill from another animal, it will eat the stomach contents of that animal. It may also nibble on the meat, though it is more interested in the plant matter contained within the slain animal’s gut. This opportunistic eating habit is an adaptation needed to take advantage of scarce nutrients in a harsh climate. Arctic hares have been known to munch on birds, lynx, fish, caribou carcasses, and other hares.
Their teeth are designed so that they’re able to snack on plants in hard-to-reach locations that other animals can’t access, like in between rocks and boulders. These hares will also burrow into the snow during the winter to try and find something to eat.
Arctic hares know where to dig for food because they have an attuned sense of smell that can discern where the plants are under the snow. They have long claws, especially on their hind legs, which help them dig deep into the snow when needed.
Arctic hares build up their body fat in the summer and can live up to 15 days without food in the winter if their body is 20% fat. In the summer, their diet may be up to 70% legumes depending on the plants in their territory.
How Do Arctic Hares Drink Water?
Arctic hares drink water by chewing on ice or snow. While most mammals can’t do this because it’ll drop their body temperature and cause them to freeze to death, arctic hares have adapted in such a way that they can do this without risking their lives. In the summer months, they use traditional water sources.
How Do Arctic Hares Hide from Predators?
Arctic hares hide from predators by remaining very still in the hopes that they aren’t spotted. If they are spotted, they’ll try to outrun their prey and can get to almost 40 mph in these high-stress moments. In the summer, they will swim if they must to escape from a predator.
The snow doesn’t blind arctic hares because their eyelashes protect against glare. Their eyes are designed in such a way that they can see all 360 degrees around them without having to turn their heads. Turning their heads might be unnecessary as this can alert a predator to their location.
Arctic hares are such a valuable food source to predators in their extreme environment because they’re one of the few protein sources available. Their predators include foxes, wolves, mountain lions, lynx, hawks, polar bears, and owls.
Do Humans Eat Arctic Hares?
Yes, humans eat arctic hares. Humans also trap these hares for their fur, though their internal organs should not be consumed because they contain high levels of heavy metal cadmium. Arctic hares also contain parasites like lice, nematodes, protozoans, worms, and fleas, so great care needs to be taken to ensure that their meat is prepared correctly for human consumption.
Their ear cartilage is considered a delicacy in some human circles, and their milk is sometimes used by indigenous people to treat nausea.
Are Arctic Hares Rabbits?
No, arctic hares are not rabbits, even though they are sometimes called polar rabbits. Arctic hares’ short ears help reduce unnecessary heat loss. They are generally solitary creatures, but they can gather in groups as big as several hundred individuals to conserve heat by huddling in the winter. They’re big creatures weighing up to 15 pounds and are generally the size of a large house cat.
When arctic hares stand on their hind legs, they stand much taller than rabbits. Rabbits move in short hops while arctic hares propel themselves along their trajectory much like a kangaroo.
No species of rabbit can survive the bitter cold that arctic hares can withstand. Rabbit babies are born blind and furless, whereas baby arctic hares, called leverets, are born with open eyes and a full fur coat. Just a few minutes after birth, they begin hopping to avoid their many predators.
Why Are Arctic Hares Good for the Environment?
On top of being an excellent food source for most predators in their range, arctic hares also play a big role in dispersing seeds, increasing plant diversity. When they graze on berries and other plant sources that contain seeds, they end up defecating the seeds away from where the original plant was located. This allows the plant to take root in a new location that it wouldn’t have been able to access without the arctic hare’s help.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Sophia Granchinho/Shutterstock.com
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