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Does coat colour influence survival? A test in a cyclic population of snowshoe hares

April 5, 2023

Some mammal species inhabiting high-latitude biomes have evolved a seasonal moulting pattern that improves camouflage via white coats in winter and brown coats in summer. In many high-latitude and high-altitude areas, the duration and depth of snow cover has been substantially reduced in the last five decades. This reduction in depth and duration of snow cover may create a mismatch between coat colour and colour of the background environment, and potentially reduce the survival rate of species that depend on crypsis. We used long-term (1977–2020) field data and capture–mark–recapture models to test the hypothesis that whiteness of the coat influences winter apparent survival in a cyclic population of snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) at Kluane, Yukon, Canada. Whiteness of the snowshoe hare coat in autumn declined during this study, and snowshoe hares with a greater proportion of whiteness in their coats in autumn survived better during winter. However, whiteness of the coat in spring did not affect subsequent summer survival. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the timing of coat colour change in autumn can reduce overwinter survival. Because declines in cyclic snowshoe hare populations are strongly affected by low winter survival, the timing of coat colour change may adversely affect snowshoe hare population dynamics as climate change continues.

Publication Year 2023
Title Does coat colour influence survival? A test in a cyclic population of snowshoe hares
DOI 10.1098/rspb.2022.1421
Authors Madan K. Oli, Alice J Kenny, Rudy Boonstra, Stan Boutin, Dennis L. Murray, Michael J.L. Peers, B. Scott Gilbert, Thomas S. Jung, Vratika Chaudhary, James E. Hines, Charles J Krebs
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Ser B.
Index ID 70242687
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center; Eastern Ecological Science Center