Snowshoe hares do not eat only grass and carrots. They also eat meat, including that of other hares, says a new study from the University of Alberta.
“It’s strange to see a nice bunny […] plunge his head right into another bunny’s carcass and eat his meat,” says Michael Peers, PhD student at the University of Alberta. “It’s not really what we expect.”
This is what he has seen more than once in the Yukon boreal forest, where he is studying the effect of environmental changes on hare survival. He also watched them eat lynx meat and defend the carcasses against other hares.
They ravaged 20 of the 161 carrion plants planted by researchers during the study.
Two hares were also seen eating grouse feathers for several days. They have piqued the curiosity of researchers, who wonder if they are able to digest bird feathers.
Scientists know that many herbivores sometimes derogate from their diet, but Michael Peers is surprised to see the hares do it “quite often and over long periods”. This behavior, more common in winter, could be a way to get more protein, he believes.
His observations, published in the scientific journal Northwestern Naturalist , add to an increasing number of clues that lead researchers to say that the line between carnivores and herbivores is not as clear as it seems.
Rudy Boonstra, co-director of Michael Peers’ thesis, published research several years ago about arctic squirrels that hunt lemmings to feed on their brains. He also believes that animals probably do this when they need to enrich their diet. “[They] know what they are doing,” he says.
Michael Peers uses motion detector cameras for his research. This technology activates when an animal moves and manages to take pictures even in complete darkness thanks to infrared light. Researchers can “spy on the forest” instead of relying on the tracks left in the snow around the carcasses, as they did before.