The mountain hare

The Mountain Hare or Variable Hare (Lepus timidus)

A charming creature, the Mountain Hare; is a small mammal belonging to the Leporidae family. Also known as the variable hare or alpine hare, it is a species perfectly adapted to living in high mountains and extreme latitudes.

The variable hare gets its name from the fact that during winter, its fur changes color, transforming into a distinctive and mimetic white coat. The common hare is also found in our areas, and it is not easy to distinguish between the two species. In summer, the coat has a grayish color, significantly less reddish than that of the common hare, and it also has shorter ears, aiding in distinguishing it from its relative. The two species can reproduce, giving rise to fertile hybrids.


Distribution and characteristics of the mountain hare

Distribution

The mountain hare is found in much of Northern Europe, and its distribution extends to Northern Asia, reaching Siberia and the northernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago. The population of the Arctic hare appears stable or, in some cases, slowly declining in many areas of the Alpine region, including the Natural Park of the Dolomites d’Ampezzo. In our country, it is present only along the Alpine arc, where it lives at an altitude ranging from 1000 to 3500 meters. During the winter period, the mountain hare is accustomed to frequenting lower altitudes, where it finds greater food resources and a milder climate. It behaves oppositely in the summer months.

The mimicry of the variable hare

The main characteristic of the mountain hare is the change in the color of its fur, which is almost completely white in winter. Only the tips of the ears remain black. This thick fur allows it to withstand the low temperatures of its habitat. The shedding of the fur is stimulated by the changing daylight hours in the progression of seasons (see photoperiodism). In summer, after the spring molt, its color is gray-brown.
Mimicry is the primary weapon to combat predators of the variable hare, which include foxes, ermines, martens, polecats, lynxes, and birds of prey. In early October, the autumn molt begins, and the fur whitens starting from the legs, becoming completely white within a month.
In the Dolomites, other masters of mimicry are the white partridge and the ermine.

Size and weight of the variable hare

The alpine hare is a medium-sized animal, with a body length ranging from 43 to 64 cm; the tail typically measures 5-8 cm, and the ears are 6-12 cm. The weight varies from 1.4 kg to 4.2 kg (females weigh 300-400 grams more than males). The sexes are similar.

The hind legs are longer than the front ones, and the feet are covered with thick fur, helping to prevent sinking into the snow. The footprints are very similar to those of the common hare but characterized by a wider support surface, resembling a snowshoe; the long toes, abundantly covered with fur, spread out maximally when it needs to move on powdery snow. The long legs allow it, surprisingly, to reach speeds of over 55 kilometers per hour.

Mountain hare in summer

Scientific classification

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Leporidae
Genus: Lepus
Species: L. timidus

Of the Timidus species, there are a total of 16 subspecies, which I do not list on this page. For more information, I invite the reader to consult specialized literature.


Reproduction

The female Arctic hare can have one or two litters per year, during the period between April and September. Gestation lasts about 50 days, and at its conclusion, typically, 2 to 5 offspring are born, each weighing 70-130 grams. Thanks to a very rapid development, they become self-sufficient within just four weeks. In nature, they reach the age of 5-8 years (max 12).

The mountain hare’s call

The hare and the rabbit do not emit vocalizations, but they can produce a kind of whimper. This sound is emitted in specific conditions such as threats or during mating.

Feeding and behavior

The variable hare feeds on shrubs and grass, heather, birch bark, dwarf willows, and conifer needles. The dentition is characterized by the presence of 6 incisors, of which 4 are well-developed and continuously growing.

The mountain hare has exclusively nocturnal habits, making it challenging to spot. During the day, this charming animal rests hidden in ground recesses, under rocks or boulders, or in the thick of the underbrush. The hare is primarily a solitary creature, interacting with others only for reproduction. However, during the winter, it may not hesitate to form groups if the territory provides concentrated food resources.
In moments of danger, the mountain hare, like the common hare, is capable of emitting a sound similar to a bleat.