Climate Change Leaves Hares Wearing The Wrong Colors Snowshoe hares rely on camouflage, turning white in the winter to match the snow, and then turning brown for the summer. But a changing climate could mean fewer days with snow on the ground, and more days when they're visible to prey.

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Climate Change Leaves Hares Wearing The Wrong Colors

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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.


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.


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.


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