North

Sorry, bunny-lovers: snowshoe hares eat meat — including other hares

Snowshoe hares eat meat, and they don't seem that picky about what kind it is, according to a paper published in the winter issue of Northwestern Naturalist.

Researcher says his findings add to growing body of evidence that herbivores aren't strictly plant-eaters

A hare is caught on camera eating grouse feathers. (Submitted by Michael Peers)

Snowshoe hares eat meat, and they don't seem all that picky about what kind of animal it comes from. 

A natural history paper published recently in the journal Northwestern Naturalist documents hares in Yukon's boreal forest scavenging on grouse, loon, other hares and even lynx. 

Peers, a PHD student at the University of Alberta, has been doing snowshoe hare and lynx research in the Kluane region for several years. (Submitted by Michael Peers)

"It's weird seeing a bunny … just kind of getting its head right into the side carcass of another rabbit and consuming meat," said Michael Peers, who wrote the paper. "It's kind of, I guess, not what you'd expect."

Peers, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, is studying how changes in the environment may affect snowshoe hare survival. He discovered the carnivorous hares after setting up wildlife cameras on animal carcasses as a side project to his main research.

While it's already known in the scientific community that some herbivores occasionally indulge in meat-eating, what surprised Peers was that the hares scavenged "quite frequently and for long periods of time."

Hares scavenged 20 of the 161 carcasses the researchers deployed for the study and some of the hares appeared to defend carcasses from other hares.

There were two other discoveries that shocked Peers. He captured two different hares eating grouse feathers over a several-day period. He thinks his photos are the first documented occurrence of this behaviour.

Peers said it was also surprising to see hares munching on lynx, their main predator.

Don't be deceived — these fluffy bunnies enjoy eating meat every now and then. (Alberta Environment and Parks)

He said his findings add to a growing body of evidence that animals aren't as easily classified as herbivores or carnivores as once thought. 

"Animals that we think are herbivores actually consume a little bit more meat than we would have otherwise suspected."

Squirrels eat lemming brains

Rudy Boonstra, Peers's co-supervisor, says the discovery is both "remarkable and puzzling" for the photographic evidence he was able to capture of the hare's diverse appetite. 

But the University of Toronto professor, who has been studying snowshoe hare and other mammals in Yukon and the Arctic for more than 30 years, says a lot of herbivores aren't strictly vegetarian. 

Boonstra says he's seen Arctic ground squirrels go on a "hunt and kill mission" for lemmings and then dining heartily on their brains (he published a paper on this in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in 1990).  

"The animals know what they're doing," he said, adding that they are most likely supplementing their diet. 

Peers says he thinks this is the first documented occurrence of a hare eating grouse feathers. (Submitted by Michael Peers)

Peers found that hares primarily scavenge in the winter. His theory is hares are looking for more protein to add to their seasonal diet of willow and dwarf birch. He suspects the feather-eating also had something to do with protein, but he said it leaves questions about how a hare can digest the feathers.  

Spying on the forest

Peers says motion-sensing trail cameras allow researchers  to "spy on the forest" in ways previously unheard of.

Researchers in the past would look at animal tracks in the snow around carcasses and take their best guess as to what happened there.

Now, they can get photographic evidence with cameras that detect motion and use infrared technology to take photos at night in pitch black conditions. 

Peers's natural history paper is more observational than scientific, but he hopes it might give other researchers food for thought for future studies. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.