Earth’s temperatures are getting warmer. In fact, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. These warmer temperatures are driving larger, long-term changes in our planet’s weather and climate. Scientists refer to these changes as “climate change.”
In a few places, climate change might be welcome, but around the world, warmer temperatures and other changes are leading to a host of problems from rising sea levels to more extreme weather events and the spread of harmful human diseases.
Professor Scott Mills, from the University of Montana, wanted to see how climate change might be affecting one particular animal called the snowshoe hare.
Snowshoe hares live in regions of North America that receive snow every winter. The hares, in fact, change their coat color from brown to white and back again every year. This helps camouflage them against their background—and hides them from the eyes of lynx, owls, and other hungry predators.
Here’s the thing: snowshoe hares can’t choose when they molt, or change their coat color. Molt timing is controlled by their genes, which are part of the DNA inside their bodies. If a hare’s genes make it molt to white in October, but snow doesn’t fall until December, the hare will stick out like a light bulb against the brown earth. And that’s a problem. Why? Because almost everywhere on earth, the length of time with snow on the ground is growing shorter and shorter.
To find out if shorter winters might harm hare populations, Scott and his team spent three years tagging and following hares. They measured how many were born, how many died, and what they died from. They also recorded whether the hares were matched or mismatched against their backgrounds.
They discovered that predators killed mismatched hares significantly more often than hares whose coats match their backgrounds. Scott and his team also calculated that over the next one hundred years, this greater mortality, or death rate, could lead to the decline or disappearance of many snowshoe hare populations.
The good news? Different hares molt at different times. This may help some hare populations adapt to shorter winters and longer periods without snow.
Hares are not the only animals affected by shorter winters. More than twenty species of animals including lemmings, weasels, hamsters, and Arctic foxes change their coat colors every year. Scott’s research helps us predict what might happen to these animals—and decide what we can do to protect them.
Scott’s discoveries about Montana snowshoe hares, together with experts’ predictions about our future climate, indicate that hares will be mismatched between 5-½ and 10 weeks by the end of this century.
Before tagging and putting a radio collar on a snowshoe hare, Professor Mills and his team must weigh and measure it.
This snowshoe hare has been tagged and fitted with a radio collar—and is now ready to help scientists learn more about snowshoe hare survival.
Even from a great distance, a mismatched hare stands out like a glowing light bulb. (Photo Courtesy of L. Scott Mills research laboratory)
Besides serving as popular prey for predators, snowshoe hares are irresistibly cute. This is a young hare, also called a leveret.
Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than eighty award-winning books, many focusing on science and the natural world. His entertaining memoir Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts—Journeys of a Biologist’s Son recounts his challenges and adventures growing up as the son of divorced biologist parents, and the experiences that would one day lay the foundation for his writing career. He is a dynamic speaker and offers school and conference programs that combine science, nature, and literacy. To learn more about him and his talks, visit his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com.
This book was reviewed by Vicki Cobb in the Huffington Post: "The Cheeseburger of the Forest".
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. "Hopping Ahead of Climate Change." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/hopping-ahead-of-climate-change.
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