Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Climate change wreaking havoc on hares that depend on seasonal coats to hide from predators

Snowshoe hares spend most of their one-year lives hiding from the many forest predators trying to eat them. The 16-to-20-inch, 2-to-4-pound animals are small enough to find many hiding places, but have also been blessed with an added cloak of invisibility, a coat that changes colors in the spring and fall in response to light, when the days get longer or shorter, Lauren Sommer reports for NPR. During the winter the hares are white, allowing them to hide in the snow, and in the summer they're brown, giving them the opportunity to hide among the forest growth. But climate change is wrecking havoc on the species, because when a season arrives early or late, the hares are the wrong color, and don't know it, meaning a brown hare could hide in the white snow, believing they are unseen by predators. (L.S. Mills Research photo: a white snowshoe hare against a non-snow background)

Alex Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, who calls such hares "mismatched," told Sommer, "They really think that they're camouflaged. They act like we can't see them. And it's pretty embarrassing for the hare. 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."

Research is being led by Scott Mills, of North Carolina State University. "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," Sommer writes. "Mills is trying to figure out whether hares and other wildlife can adapt as fast as the climate is changing." Mills told Sommer, "It's a picture that paints a thousand words. It's a very clear connection to a single climate-change stressor." (Read more)

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