Evolutionary shifts in Scottish mountain hares

Did you know there were hares – just like our snowshoe hares in North America – that molt from brown to white coat in winter in Europe and Asia? They are called mountain hares (Lepus timidus) and are just as fond of snow and high elevations as snowshoe hares. And just like snowshoes they are facing fewer and fewer days with snow on the ground. We have been interested in and working on mountain hares with our collaborators for several years now, but are just now starting a new mountain hare project in Scotland which is a large part of my dissertation. We first shared this research idea with you in 2012 when Scott M., Paulo Alves and I traveled to Scotland and met with John Flux to look for his mountain hares in the Scottish Highlands. Now, couple years later we are finally about to start our first sampling season there thanks to a new collaboration with Glenn Iason and Scott Newey.

The main reason we are so excited about mountain hares in Scotland and this new direction (one out of many in our lab) is that several extraordinary field ecologists, including the mentioned John F. and Adam Watson were intrigued by hare coat color molts as much as we are now and described the molts back in the 1950s and 1960s. So now, 60 or more years later we have this amazing opportunity to search for evidence of evolution in those same populations. We will replicate their meticulously described field studies and compare the historical molt timing to the current one. Because the duration of snow cover has shortened in Scotland, we suspect natural selection might have already shifted the color molts to match the new snow conditions. With Adam Terando at the SE Climate Science Center we will connect those potential molt shifts to the declines in snow cover and with Paulo A. and others will search for fingerprints of selection in their genomes too. Our first field season is about to start in couple weeks and so stay tuned for updates and hare photos!

For now have a look at a video I took of those speedy hares last September near Lecht ski centre.

By Marketa Zimova


Image: Mountain hare on a Scottish moor