In Canada, we have diverse seasonality. Summers can reach temperatures well above 30 degrees celsius and winters can dip well below -30 degrees celsius in many regions. The changing seasons has been a driving force in biodiversity in our ecosystems, driving behaviours such as hibernation and migration! The differences in seasons has also driven adaptations in many species allowing them to survive these conditions.
In general, there are three main strategies animals use to survive the winter; (1) migration, (2) hibernation and (3) resistance. Migration occurs seasonally for many animals. When temperatures warm up in the spring, species return to Ontario and when temperatures fall again in the fall species leave to other areas that are more hospitable. In most areas in Ontario, migration occurs across a vast area. However, some species migrate a much smaller distance - such as from the top of a mountain to the base. In Ontario, common species that use migration as a strategy to survive winter are migratory birds, such as Canadian Geese!
Hibernation is another common approach to survive the winter. This approach is used by mammals, reptiles and even amphibians! Species use different approaches to hibernate, but the general idea is that animals eat lots during the summer to store body fat, find a place to hibernate - a hibernaculum- and stay for the winter. During hibernation, the internal systems of species slow down, including their metabolism, which conserves energy and allows them to remain dormant for several months until the weather warms up. Some of the most well known hibernators are bears, turtles and groundhogs!
The final strategy used by species to survive winter is resistance. This strategy is the most diverse of the three. Each species has evolved their own way of surviving depending on habitat, predators and food sources. The snowshoe hare is a great example of a species adapted to surviving in snowy, winter conditions!
The Snowshoe Hare can be found in every province and territory in Canada. They reproduce up to 4 times a year and can reach very high densities in some areas, up to 600 per square kilometer! The snowshoe hare has developed very specialized adaptations that allows it to survive in the hot summers and cold winters.
The snowshoe hare has several adaptations that allow them to survive in the diverse Canadian seasons. Depending on the season, snowshoe hares have different coloured fur to help them blend in with their environment. In the summer, snowshoe hares have a reddish-brown coat to blend in with trees, leaves and dirt. As the temperatures get cooler, the brown coat gradually turns into a thicker white coat which helps them blend in with the snow. The length of the day coupled with temperature are the likely key indicators that start the changing of coat colours! Regardless of the season, the tip of the Snowshoe hares ears remain black, which can be an easy way to identify them.
Another physical adaptation of the snowshoe hare is their large hindlegs and wide, flat feet. The size of their feet and toes provide extra surface area and help them travel across the fluffy snow in the winter! In contrast to species of rabbits, hares do not freeze at the sight of danger and will use these powerful back legs to flee.
Hares are an important food source for many species in the Biosphere and their typical lifespan is under 5 years in the wild. Despite the heightened threat of predation, hare populations can explode. Females can reproduce four times a breeding season and can give birth to up to eight offspring each time. The quick lifecycle of the snowshoe hare is another form of adaptation that helps support the survival of the species and health of the ecosystem!
The Snowshoe Hare is just one example of a species that is adapted to deal with winter conditions, there are many more!