The Snowshoe hare is a secretive forest-dwelling mammal found only in North America. It has the name "snowshoe" because of the large size of its hind feet. The animal's feet prevent it from sinking into the snow when it hops and walks. Its feet also have fur on the soles to protect it from freezing temperatures. For camouflage, its fur turns white during the winter and rusty brown during the summer. Its flanks are white year-round. The Snowshoe hare is also distinguishable by the black tufts of fur on the edge of its ears. Its ears are shorter than those of most other hares.
Snowshoe hares occur from Newfoundland to Alaska; south in the Sierra Nevada to central California; in the Rocky Mountains to southern Utah and northern New Mexico; and in the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina and Tennessee. They live in boreal forests and upper montane forests and within these forests, Snowshoe hares favor habitats with a dense shrub layer.
Snowshoe hares are mainly nocturnal and don't hibernate. They are shy and secretive and spend most of the day in shallow depressions, called forms, scraped out under clumps of ferns, brush thickets, and downed piles of timber. They may occasionally use the large burrows of mountain beavers as forms. During the breeding season, they become diurnal and juveniles are usually more active and less cautious than adults. Snowshoe hares are generally solitary but may gather in small groups when feeding. They typically feed at night and follow well-worn forest paths to feed on various plants and trees. They are very cautious and tend to avoid open areas during bright periods of a single night. If feeling threatened Snowshoe hares may freeze hoping to stay undetected due to their camouflaging coloration, or they may flee. They are very fast and agile; they may cover 3 m at a time and can run as fast as 45 km/h (28 mph). Snowshoe hares are also able to swim across small lakes and rivers and may enter the water in order to escape predators.
Snowshoe hares are herbivores (graminivores, folivores). They eat a variety of plant materials such as grass, ferns, and leaves; in winter, they eat buds, twigs, evergreen needles, and bark from trees. Snowshoe hares have even been known to occasionally eat dead animals.
Snowshoe hares are polygynandrous (promiscuous), when both males and females have multiple mates. Breeding varies with latitude, location, and weather conditions and generally begins in late December to January and lasts until July or August. The gestation period is 35 to 40 days and females can have up to 4 litters per year. Litters average 3 to 5 leverets and may range from 1 to 7. Newborns are fully furred, open-eyed, and mobile. They leave the natal form within a short time after birth, often within 24 hours. After leaving the birthplace, siblings stay near each other during the day, gathering once each evening to nurse. Weaning occurs at 25 to 28 days except for the last litter of the season, which may nurse for two months or longer. Young females normally first breed as 1-year-olds.
Habitat loss and climate change are the main threats to Snowshoe hares at present. In some areas of their range, the habitat for some populations has changed dramatically, leaving some habitats without snow for longer periods than previously. Some hares have adapted and stay brown all winter. Others, however, continue to turn white in winter. These hares are at an increased risk of being hunted and killed because they are no longer camouflaged. Many people in the scientific community believe that Snowshoe hare populations are at risk of crashing unless interbreeding speeds up the process of evolution to year-round brown.
The IUCN Red List and other sources don’t provide the number of the Snowshoe hare total population size. Currently, this species is classified as least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are stable.
Snowshoe hares are a major prey item for many local predators; these include Canada lynx, bobcats, fishers, American martens, long-tailed weasels, minks, foxes, coyote, domestic dogs, domestic cats, wolves, cougars, owls, hawks, golden eagles, and crows and ravens.