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Mountain hares – losers out to climate change?

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Mountain hares have fascinated Maik Rehnus for a long time – last year he duly celebrated ten years of research.  His justification for his great interest in the animal is that “mountain hares are the indicator species for Arctic-Alpine ecosystems because,” he says, “they react very sensitively to environmental changes.” Their behavior serves as an early-warning system.

Maik spends about sixty days a year tracking the shy survival artists in the Swiss Alps, or more precisely, their faeces. He and his Austrian colleagues have developed a new method to study mountain hares without disturbing them. The researchers use fresh ‘pellets’ to test for stress. “With this method we don’t have to catch the stress-sensitive animals,” explains Maik, a Saxon from birth.  Stressed animals require up to 20% more energy than undisturbed ones, as he was able to show in a study in the Natur- und Tierpark Goldau. He also found that the concentrations of stress hormones in the faeces of wild mountain hares living in winter-sport areas were higher than in those of hares living in undisturbed areas in the Swiss National Park, which is closed in winter.

He also investigated how the distribution of mountain hares is changing with climate change. Maik’s conclusion: If the climate warms as predicted, the habitat of the mountain hare, which is adapted to the cold, will shrink and become fragmented.

If habitats are isolated, inbreeding may occur, which raises the risk of extinction. This would have an impact on endangered species like the eagle owl and the golden eagle, which regularly have mountain hares on the menu.

“Ten years ago we knew very little about mountain hares in the Alps,” says Maik. Today the results can be used for making practical recommendations. The wildlife ecologist is working with colleagues at WSL on developing methods for monitoring mountain hares throughout Switzerland to provide advice on hunting the mountain hare sustainably. (Stephanie Schnydrig, Diagonal 1/17)