Snowshoe hares and the various species of cottontail rabbits look similar from a distance, especially during the summer when the hares don’t have their distinctive white coats. Although these species are related, they do show some distinctive differences.
The term “cottontail” covers the 16 species of rabbit in the genus Sylvilagus. “Snowshoe hare” refers to Lepus americanus, just one species from the hares genus. Both genera belong to the family Leporidae, rabbits and hares, in the order Lagomorpha, which contains rabbits, hares and pikas. Lagomorphs are not closely related to rodents despite some superficial similarities.
Habitat and Distribution
The snowshoe hare is a northern animal, adapted to cold environments. The hare’s range extends through much of Canada and Alaska and includes mountain forests in the contiguous United States. It prefers forested environments and needs snow cover during the winter – the winter-white coat would make it an easy target for predators otherwise. The ranges of the various species of cottontail rabbit overlap regularly with that of the snowshoe hare except in the very far north. Depending on species, cottontail rabbits inhabit swamps, farmland, forests and other habitats.
Hares and rabbits can normally be distinguished by their ears – hares usually have far longer ones. Not snowshoe hares. They have relatively short ears, no longer than those of most cottontail rabbits. The most distinctive characteristic of snowshoe hares is their unusually large feet. In winter, most subspecies of snowshoe hare develop pure white coats, which cottontail rabbits do not. Cottontail rabbits on the whole look like typical rabbits – fairly small with midlength ears and a range of subdued greys, fawns and browns. Most species have white undersides to their tails, which they flash when chased, probably to confuse predators or to warn each other.
Behavior and Ecology
Snowshoe hares are mostly nocturnal, feeding at night, dusk and dawn, and spending daylight hours resting in thick vegetation. They tend to be solitary animals outside breeding season, when numerous males collect to court a female. The young hares -- leverets -- are born fully furred and mobile, becoming completely independent from the age of about 4 weeks. Because there are so many species of cottontail rabbit, it’s difficult to generalize about their behavior. Most species are fairly solitary, in contrast to the highly social European rabbit, and often nocturnal. Unlike hares, the babies are born completely helpless and lacking fur.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.