Wildlife in the Alps coping with winter: Part 3 – Turning White

mountain hare

One of my most favourite examples of how well animals in the Alps are adapted to their environment is the mountain hare (Lepus timidus). It’s adaptations to winter conditions are phenomenal.

A snow hare’s fur

Although various shades of brown in summer, mountain hares turn white for winter, giving them a perfect camouflage in our snowy mountains and making them incredibly difficult for predators to spot. But this extraordinary change in colour is not the only adaptation in its fur to make life in a wintry environment easier. Extra hairs on its paws make the surface of its feet bigger to prevent the hare from sinking into the snow: it’s like the mountain hare is walking on snowshoes!

A natural igloo

Its insulating winter coat also proves to be very useful during a snow storm. As soon as a mountain hare is surprised by a blizzard, he remains motionless at the same spot. In a few minutes or hours, depending on how hard it snows, a small natural ‘igloo’ will form around the animal. This way the snow hare, protected by a layer of snow and its thick winter coat, can wait motionless for hours for calmer weather to arrive without getting cold.

Other animals that turn white  

The mountain hare is not the only species in the Alpes that changes into a living snowball in winter. Stoats (Mustela erminea) and rock ptarmigans (Lagopus muta) also turn white during the winter months. However, all three species keep a small black tuft which they use for communicating with each other. Both stoats and rock ptarmigans have black tips on their tails, while a mountain hare has black tips on its ears.

To be continued…

This blog is part of a series in which I discuss some of the extraordinary strategies and adaptations of wildlife coping with winter in the Alps:

Simone van Velzen

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