From: University of Wisconsin-Madison via ScienceDaily
Published March 31, 2016 07:52 AM

Snowshoe hare range moving northward following retreating snow cover

If there is an animal emblematic of the northern winter, it is the snowshoe hare.

A forest dweller, the snowshoe hare is named for its big feet, which allow it to skitter over deep snow to escape lynx, coyotes and other predators. It changes color with the seasons, assuming a snow-white fur coat for winter camouflage.

But a changing climate and reduced snow cover across the north is squeezing the animal out of its historic range, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Writing in the current (March 30, 2016) Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Wisconsin researchers report that the range of the hare in Wisconsin is creeping north by about five and a half miles per decade, closely tracking the diminishing snow cover the animal requires to be successful.

"The snowshoe hare is perfectly modeled for life on snow," explains Jonathan Pauli, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology and one of the co-authors of the new study. "They're adapted to glide on top of the snow and to blend in with the historical colors of the landscape."

As climate warms, northern winters have become shorter and milder. And the annual blanket of snow that many organisms have evolved to depend on is in steady retreat, becoming thinner and less dependable in regions that once experienced snow well into the spring months.

The Wisconsin study is important because it helps illustrate the effects of climate change on a sentinel species for northern ecosystems, showing how the composition of plants and animals on the landscape is gradually shifting in a warming world. The findings also signal that climate change is beginning to eclipse land use as the dominant driver of ecological change.

Snowshoe hare in winter image via Shutterstock.

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