Mammal Species of the World
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White-tailed jackrabbits are found throughout west-central Canada and the United States with an elevation span of 40 to 4,300 m. They range from the Great Plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta east to extreme southwest Ontario down into Wisconsin and across the continent to the Rocky Mountains with a southern limit in central California (Wilson and Ruff, 1999). There has been a noted range reduction from the south east over the past half-century, notably in Kansas, due to habitat alteration from increased agriculture and competition from the sympatric black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus). An accompanying range increase to the north has been observed over time (Kim, 1987).
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (20,000-2,500,000 square km (about 8000-1,000,000 square miles)) Primarily Great Basin and northern Great Plains, from Sierra Nevada east to Mississippi River, and from south-central Canada (south-central British Columbia, central Alberta, Saskatchewan, extreme southwestern Ontario) south to northwestern Missouri (formerly), Kansas (formerly), and northern New Mexico. Range expanded eastward and northward with forest clearing and agricultural expansion. Range has contracted in central plains region and in eastern Washington, where habitats have been altered (through climate warming, cultivation, and/or overgrazing) to favor L. CALIFORNICUS. See map in Lim (1987).
The pelage of Lepus townsendii varies with season and habitat. The upper parts range from yellowish to grayish brown in colour, with white or grey on the underside. The throat and face are somewhat darker with coarser hair. In the northern extent of the range where there is significant snow fall during the year, a pure white colouration is attained with the possibilty of a buffy tint on the face, ears, feet and back. A slight change may be noted in the more southern range where only the sides of the animal become white while the back retains a more buffy-grey tinge. An early to late spring moult reverses this process. As the common name indicates, the tail is always white which may possess a buffy dorsal stripe. Ears of this jackrabbit are rimmed in white and tipped in black year round. The juvenile pelage is similar but paler in colour with more under fur and less developed course guard hairs (Kim, 1987).
White-tailed jackrabbits have a number of other distinct morphological characters which reflect adaptation to their environment and ecology. Enormous ears equipped with generous blood flow are used for heat dissipation in the warmer portions of the range, while they also provide an excellent means of predator detection. L.townsendii have large hind legs which facilitate high jumps and quick escapes from predators (Forsyth,1999). The dental formula is 2/1 0/0 3/2 3/3 =28 with huge upper insicors for nipping plants (Chapman et al.,1982)
Though females are slightly larger in size, there is no other apparent sexual dimorphism (Kim, 1987).
Range mass: 3 to 4 kg.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
Average basal metabolic rate: 7.698 W.
Length: 66 cm
Weight: 4300 grams
Size in North America
Average: 589 mm males; 612 mm females
Range: 565-618 mm males; 575-655 mm females
Average: 3,400 g males; 3,600 g females
Range: 2,600-4,300 g males; 2,500-4,300 g females
White-tailed jackrabbits prefer open grasslands but thrive in pastures and fields. This species can also be found in forested areas up to high alpine tundra, from 40 to 4300 meters elevation.
Range elevation: 40 to 4300 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; forest ; mountains
Other Habitat Features: agricultural
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Open grasslands and sagebrush plains. At higher elevations found in open areas adjacent to pine forests and in alpine tundra. Rests by day usually in shallow depressions (forms) at base of bush or beside or in cavity in snow. Young are born in a well concealed depression in the ground or in burrows abandoned by other animals.
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
White-tailed jackrabbits are strict herbivores. They feed on grasses, forbs, and shrubs in varying amounts. In the summer months, when many succulent plants are readily found, L. townsendii feeds on flora such as clover (Trifolium sp.) and dryland sedge (Carex obtusata). As the winter months approach, white-tailed jackrabbits turn to the bark of shrubs such as Parry's rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus parryi) and plants like alfalfa (Medicago sativa) that are exposed through the snow. Winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) and western wheat grass (Agropyron smithii) are also imporant parts the diet (Kim, 1987 and Chapman et al., 1982). This species has been known to winter in barns and feed extensively on the hay found inside (Banfield, 1974). White-tailed jackrabbits are generally voracious eaters and captive specimens have been known to eat as much as .5 kg of plant matter daily (Kim, 1987).
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Comments: Eats grasses, forbs, and grains in summer. Browses on twigs, buds, and bark in winter. May feed on cultivated crops.
White-tailed jackrabbits are an important prey source for medium to large sized predators in the ecosystems in which they live. They also impact vegetation community composition through their grazing activities.
Lepus townsendii is a favorite prey item of animals such as red fox, grey fox, coyote, bobcat, cougar, badger, snakes, owls, eagles, and many species of hawks. The general method of predator avoidance is to lie perfectly still in the form, relying on their cryptic coloration to avoid detection, with large ears pointed slightly up for predator detection. Jackrabbits may attempt to slink off silently but will bound away with surprising speed and height when surprised. Zig-zag patterns as well as proficient swimming have been observed in predator escapes.
- red foxes (Vulpes vulpes)
- grey foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
- coyotes (Canis latrans)
- bobcats (Lynx rufus)
- mountain lions (Puma concolor)
- badgers (Taxidea taxus)
- snakes (Serpentes)
- owls (Strigiformes)
- eagles and hawks (Accipitridae)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Based on studies in:
USA: California, Cabrillo Point (Grassland)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
Based on studies in:
USA: California, Cabrillo Point (Grassland)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
Comments: Still relatively large number.
10,000 to >1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Fairly common in the West. More common in northern areas. Has always been less common than black-tailed jackrabbit.
Populations known to fluctuate as drastically as in L. AMERICANUS. Usual population density generally is 2-15 per sq km, but reported at up to 71 (Iowa) and 43 (Minnesota) per sq km. Generally solitary but sometimes aggregates (Lim 1987).
Life History and Behavior
These animals generally make no vocalizations, but will scream if caught or injured (Banfield, 1974). They are likely to rely extensively on their acute hearing and sense of smell to perceive their environment, but also have good vision and whiskers that help them in navigating and finding food. Like most mammals, they probably also rely extensively on chemical cues for communicating reproductive condition.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Comments: Active throughout the year. Primarily crepuscular; active in early morning and late afternoon and evening (Armstrong 1975). Reported as nocturnal by Lim (1987).
Lepus townsendii lives to approximately 8 years of age in the wild.
Status: wild: 8 (high) years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Three to five males may pursue one female concurrently during mating season, leading to aggresive charging among them. The courting behaviour of white-tailed jackrabbits consists of a series of aggresive charges and jumps. Circling between male and female lasts from 5-20 minutes and is followed by copulation.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
The breeding season of white-tailed jackrabbits lasts from February to July with a peak from March to June. Ovulation is induced, requiring copulation or suitable stimulation. (Chapman et al., 1982). One to four litters with from 1 to 11 (averaging 4 to 5) young are born each year. A maximum of one litter is produced in more nothern climates. The gestation period is commonly reported as 42 days but this length varies, possibly due to altitude and habitat (Kim, 1987). This species exhibits breeding synchrony with male spermatogenesis and a postpartum estrus that facilitates conception soon after birth of young (Kim, 1987).
At birth the young weigh approximately 90-100 grams, have open eyes, full fur, and limited mobility within half an hour. The young begin to forage at approximately 2 weeks of age and are fulled weaned at one month. Sexually maturity is reached by 7 or 8 months though there is little evidence of reproduction until the spring following their birth.
Breeding interval: From 1 to 4 litters are born each year, depending on environmental conditions.
Breeding season: The breeding season of white-tailed jackrabbits lasts from February to July with a peak from March to June.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 11.
Average number of offspring: 5.
Range gestation period: 36 to 43 days.
Average gestation period: 42 days.
Range weaning age: 15 (low) days.
Average weaning age: 30 days.
Average time to independence: 1 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 8 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 8 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; induced ovulation ; viviparous ; post-partum estrous
Average birth mass: 94.32 g.
Average number of offspring: 4.3.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 333 days.
Female L. townsendii nurse and care for their young for about 1 month. Females often create nests for the protection of their young from dried grass, leaves, and hair. Young are born fully furred and are capable of some level of mobility shortly after birth.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)
Breeds late February to mid-July in North Dakota; up to 4 litters/year; in north, breeds May-early July; 1 litter/year; gestation lasts 5-6 weeks; litter size 1-11; young independent in about 2 months (Lim 1987).
White-tailed jackrabbits are abundant through most of their range and have no special conservation status. They are considered "least concern" by the IUCN. The subspecies Lepus townsendii townsendii is considered a mammal of special concern in California, where populations have declined dramatically, probably as a result of competition with livestock and overgrazing by livestock.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Reasons: Larege range in western and central North America; still fairly abundant, with many healthy populations, though has experienced some loss of habitat in eastern part of range.
Degree of Threat: B : Moderately threatened throughout its range, communities provide natural resources that when exploited alter the composition and structure of the community over the long-term, but are apparently recoverable
Comments: Loss of prairie habitat to agriculture has led to declines in some areas.
Global Protection: Unknown whether any occurrences are appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Protected perhaps in some national parks or nature preserves. No legal protection.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
White-tailed jackrabbits are often viewed as a threat by farmers as they can destroy crops, eat hay stores, and girdle trees (Chapman et al., 1982). Because of low population densities and grassland preferences, the impact of L. townsendii on argriculture is usually small. (Banfield, 1974).
Negative Impacts: crop pest
White-tailed jackrabbits were a significant food source for early settlers of North America and continue to be a year round game animal. Their pelts were once highly prized and widely used in the commercial fur industry.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material
Comments: In some areas, harvested for fur or used as food for captive-raised mink (Lim 1987).
The white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii), also known as the prairie hare and the white jack, is a species of hare found in western North America. Like all hares and rabbits, it is a member of the family Leporidae of order Lagomorpha. It is a solitary individual except where several males court a female in the breeding season. Litters of four to five young are born in a form, a shallow depression in the ground, hidden among vegetation. This jackrabbit has two described subspecies: L. townsendii townsendii occurring west of the Rocky Mountains and L. townsendii campanius occurring east of the Rocky Mountains.
The white-tailed jackrabbit is a large species of hare and the largest species called "jackrabbit", although two larger hares (the Arctic and Alaskan hares) are found further north in North America. This jackrabbit has an adult length of 56 to 65 cm (22 to 26 in), including a tail measuring 6.6 to 10.2 cm (2.6 to 4.0 in), and a weight between 2.5 and 4.3 kg (5.5 and 9.5 lb). From winter to spring, weight tends to increase due to pregnancy in females but decrease due to the stresses of reproductive competition in males. Thusly, females in Iowa went from averaging 3,600 g (7.9 lb) in winter to 3,800 g (8.4 lb) in spring and males from averaging 3,400 g (7.5 lb) in winter to 3,100 g (6.8 lb) in spring. At the northern most extremity of its range it can be almost twice as large as in the middle of it range. In Saskatchewan rare specimens have been recorded at over 9 kg (20 lb). It has distinctive large grey ears with black tips which are chestnut brown and white on the inside and the long, powerful hind legs characteristic of hares. The back, flanks and limbs are dark brown or greyish-brown and the underparts are pale grey. The ear, from the notch, measures from 10 to 11.3 cm (3.9 to 4.4 in) and the hindfoot measures 14.5 to 16.5 cm (5.7 to 6.5 in). The tail is white with a dark central stripe above. Females are slightly larger than males. In northern populations, this hare moults in the autumn and becomes white all over except for its ears. They generally make no sound but will emit a shrill scream if they are injured or caught.
Distribution and habitat
The white-tailed jackrabbit is native to western and central parts of North America. Its range includes British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario in Canada and Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois in the United States. It is found in plains and prairie and in alpine meadows with scattered coniferous trees up to an elevation of about 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) in Colorado. The white-tailed jackrabbit is slightly larger than the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) and where their ranges overlap, they are segregated by their habitat, as the former tends to live in higher altitudes and the latter in more arid lowland habitats.
The white-tailed jackrabbit is nocturnal and lies up during the day in a form, a shallow depression in the ground hidden under vegetation, emerging at dusk to feed. The forms of this species range from 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in) long, 20 to 30 cm (7.9 to 11.8 in) wide and up to 20 cm (7.9 in) deep. There are often discernible paths leading away from the form and others among the plants at often-visited feeding sites. In winter snow, the forms are interconnecting cave-like structures. This jackrabbit is a solitary species and feeds on grasses and other green plants, including cultivated crops. In southern Colorado, from summer through fall into winter, the diet varied from of 70% (summer) to 4% (winter) forbs, 43% (fall) to 4% (winter) grasses and 76% (winter) to 7% (summer) scrubs. During the winter its diet includes buds, twigs and bark feed on off of low shrubs. It tends to be more selective in its feeding habits than the black-tailed jackrabbit which disadvantages it where their ranges overlap. It has good eyesight, excellent hearing and sensitive whiskers and is probably able to detect olfactory clues as to whether another jackrabbit is ready to breed.
The breeding season is variable and depends upon latitude and environmental factors and extends from February to July in different parts of the range. Several males may compete aggressively for the attention of a female by charging at each other, leaping and jostling. Ovulation by the female takes place after copulation. The gestation period is about 42 days and in preparation for the birth, the female prepares a fur-lined nest under dense vegetation. A litter consists of up to eleven young although four or five is a more typical number. The leverets weigh about 100 grams (3.5 oz) and are precocial. They have their eyes open and are fully furred at birth and soon begin to move around. They start to forage at about two weeks old and are weaned at four weeks. They are sexually mature at about seven months but do not breed until the year after their birth.
White-tailed jackrabbits influence the composition of the turf through their selective grazing activities. They are important prey species for various mammalian predators. Red (Vulpes vulpes) and grey foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) occasionally capture one, though not many large adults. They are perhaps most important prey for mid-sized carnivores like the American badger (Taxidea taxus), the coyote (Canis latrans) and the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and small supplemental prey for larger ones like the mountain lion (Puma concolor) and the gray wolf (Canis lupus). Snakes sometimes attack them (usually young ones) and bird predators include eagles, hawks and owls. Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are the only avian predators large enough to regularly take full-grown white-tailed jackrabbit, though ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) and great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) may occasionally take an adult though these latter two species and other largish raptorial birds typically attack young individuals. They attempt to evade detection by crouching in the vegetation where their cryptic colouration makes them difficult to observe. They may slink away but if detected, they bound away at speed, adopting a zigzag course. They can run at up to 55 kilometres (34 miles) per hour and leap up to 5 metres (16 ft). As well as being caught by animal predators, they are also hunted and eaten by humans.
The white-tailed jackrabbit is assessed as being of "Least Concern" by the IUCN in its Red List of Threatened Species. This is because this hare has an extensive range and is fairly common across most of this range. The population size may be declining slightly but not at a rate that would justify listing this hare in a more threatened category.
In Wyoming however, it has become scarce in Grand Teton National Park where it has not been seen recently. Briefly reputed to have been extirpated in Yellowstone National Park where it was at one time abundant, it is now clear from observations, roadkilled specimens and historical records that white-tailed jackrabbits are still present in the park. The causes of the decline in populations in Wyoming is unclear.
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