I like to argue that adaptation is the engine that drives Mother Nature. In biology, adaptation is broken down into three different aspects. The first of the tri-aspects is the natural selection matches an organism to their environment, which in turns enhances their evolutionary fitness. The second aspect of adaptation is a state reached by the population of the organism. And lastly, the adaptive trait plays a major role in the individual organism and is maintained through natural selection.
Wow, well if that first paragraph didn’t boar you to death, you may be as demented as I am. These are the kinds of things I think about when I come across something unique in nature. Recently while on a trip to photograph Polar Bears in the sub-arctic, I spotted an animal that embodies the concept of adaptation to its fullest, the Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus).
I was moving across the tundra with all the arctic vegetation in its autumn blazing glory. Bright reds and vibrant yellows painted the landscape and turned everything into a vibrant visual scene. Large, smooth rocks, often covered in lichens, punctuated the landscape. This is the perfect habitat for an Arctic Hare.
So, it wasn’t hard to spot an Arctic Hare, mostly because of their adaptation. You see, Arctic Hares adapt to their environment, which means they turn white in winter to blend into the snowy landscape. However, since it was still autumn, no snow had fallen this season, so the white Arctic Hare sticks out like a white light on a dark background. During summer the Arctic Hares are a combination of gray and white which is an adaptation to blend into the rocky environment. To add to the intrigue, the Arctic Hares that live in the furthest northern regions stay white all year. This is an example of extreme adaption.
Arctic Hares are related to Jackrabbits and live in northern Canada and the coastal regions of the northern Canadian Islands, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. They are a large hare, weighing between 7 to 11 pounds but can be up to 15 pounds. They are one of the largest hares (Lagomorphs) in the world. They are larger than most domestic cats and larger than some of the small domestic “teacup” dogs.
During autumn the Arctic Hares eat as much as they can, putting on upwards of 20 percent body fat. The body fat will help insulate them against the coming winter weather and also provide a reserve food storage for the times when major winter storms hit which often last for several days in a row.
They mate only once per year, and females give birth to 2-8 young which are born in May and June. Arctic Hare babies are called leverets and are born with full fur coats and their eyes open and can hop within just a few minutes of birth. Compare that to rabbit babies which are born naked, and their eyes closed, you can see some of the many differences between hares and rabbits.
Compared to other hares and rabbits, the Arctic Hare has shorter legs and ears making them look more compact. They have a very thick coat of fur which helps keep them warm in the winter months. They stay warm at night by holding a tight posture, staying out of the wind, and digging a shallow depression for shelter. They are often seen huddled up against a rock for more protection from the wind.
Sheltering next to a rock is where I first saw the Arctic Hare. They conserve energy by sitting for long periods of time followed by short periods of activity. They usually don’t go very far. When I spotted this hare, I didn’t know if it would bolt away or try to remain hidden. So, I slowly moved closer, using the large rocks for cover. I would poke my long lens over the top of a rock to grab a couple shots then move up in a slow and smooth pattern. Eventually I got close enough to capture some decent images. To my surprise, the hare started to move around, feeding on the plants nearby. It was obvious it wasn’t affected by my presents. It moved in a small circle stopping to munch, chew and swallow. After about five minutes of activity, it made its way back to the place it started and settled down and got comfortable. This is the ideal scenario to be able to capture some decent images of the animal and also some behaviors and then leave with the critter right where I first spotted him without causing any disturbance. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at www.Instagram.com and www.Facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at www.NatureSmart.com.