Arctic hare or polar rabbit is a species of hare, living in polar and mountainous habitats. These hares are much larger than regular rabbits.
Their front and hind legs are large and fluffy. Color of the coat depends on a season of year, while the fur on underbelly and chest always remains gray. Thus, in winters the fur grows long. It becomes white, thicker, softer by feel with black bunches on the edges of their ears. Molting coincides with summer season, during which the fur becomes brownish grey to gray-blue. Face, feet, ears, shoulders, legs and, finally, back: molt one by one. Males usually start molting after females.
Arctic hares’ area of distribution covers vast territory, stretching from Greenland and northernmost regions of Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador. This animal easily tolerates extremely low temperatures in arctic tundra and arctic desert. Altitude of its habitat varies from sea level to about 900 meters.
Arctic hares are nocturnal animals that prefer leading solitary lifestyle. However, to survive under extreme, Arctic weather conditions, hares congregate in groups. Here they get warm of each other’s bodies. Also, they feed in groups of 10-60 individuals in each one, though in far north regions they gather in large groups of up to 300 individuals. Feeling danger, a hare rises on its hind legs while keeping front legs lifted and close to the chest. They stand still in this position, listening carefully to any rustling around. They can also hop away in this position. These hares are excellent swimmers and, as all hares, elusive runners. They dig through snow to get food.
Arctic hare is herbivore (folivore), meaning that it mainly feeds on plants. However, they enjoy eating willows and flowers as well. Due to lack of suitable food in northernmost regions, these animals dig through the snowpack to get lichens, plants and mosses. Their diet includes also rare leaves, buds and roots of plants.
These hares are polygynous, meaning that a male mates more than one female during each breeding season. Mating period takes place in spring, usually from April to May, while gestation period takes about 50 days. As a result, in May-June, a female gives birth to 2-8 youngsters. Each mating pair has its defined territory. Usually, young are able to fond for themselves in 2-3 weeks after being born. However, they stay with their mother, weaned only at the age of 8-9 weeks. Sexual maturity is reached at the age of around 315 days.
Major threats for Arctic hare are: habitat loss in areas, overlapping with human settlements, and excessive hunting. As for the latter, they attract hunters for their pelts as well as meat. Majority of the hunters are indigenous people of the region. Moreover, in the case of global warming threats are likely to increase.
The population number of Arctic hare is not officially estimated. However, this widespread species is evidently not endangered, assuming that IUCN has classified the Arctic Hare in the IUCN Red List as Least Concern.
By feeding upon seeds, these animals unconsciously disperse them. Two other species of the area – caribou and muskoxen – have the same diet as Arctic Hare. This similarity creates competition for food between the species.