We have been working on the ten-year cycle of snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in the southwest Yukon since 1975 trying to answer the simple question of what causes these cyclic fluctuations. I think that we now understand the causes of the cyclic dynamics, which is not to say all things are known but the broad picture is complete. But some misunderstanding persists, hence this one page summary. Some biology first.
The snowshoe hare cycle has been known from Canada lynx fur return data for more than 100 years, and of course known to First Nations people much before that. Hares are herbivores of small trees and shrubs, they reproduce at age 1 and rarely live more than 1-2 years. They have 2-4 litters in a summer, with litter size around 4-6. Juvenile losses are high and at best populations increase about three-to-four-fold per year. Almost everything eats them – lynx, coyotes, great-horned owls, goshawks, a long list of predators on the young. Reproduction collapses with rising density and females reduce their output from 4 litters to 2 in the peak and decline phase.
The obvious driving factors when Lloyd Keith and his students began working on the hare cycle in Alberta in the 1960s were winter food shortage and predation. When there is a high hare peak, damage to shrubs and small trees is obvious. But it was quite clear in Keith’s studies that the decline phase continued well after the vegetation recovered, and so he postulated a two-factor explanation, winter food shortage followed by high predation losses. He looked for disease and parasite problems in hares but found nothing.
Testing the winter food limitation would appear to be simple but is fraught with problems. Everyone believes that food is an ultimate limiting factor, so that it must be involved in the cyclic dynamics. We began testing food limitation in the mid-1970s and found that one could add natural food or artificial food (rabbit chow) and apparently have no effect on cyclic dynamics. Hares came to the food grids so the density increased by immigration, but the decline started at the same time and at the same rate as on control grids. So what is the role of food?
Our next attempt was to do a factorial experiment adding food, reducing predation, and doing both together. The details are important, replication was never enough for the manipulated treatments, we did it only for 10 years rather than 20 or 30. What we found was that there was an interaction between food addition and mammal predator exclusion so that the combined treatment increased to a much higher density than any single treatment. But this result came with a puzzle. What is the role of food? Hares showed no evidence of malnutrition in the peak or decline, fed hares did not increase their reproductive output. What produced the strong interaction between food addition and predator reduction?
The next breakthrough came when Rudy Boonstra suggested that predator-caused stress might underlie these strange dynamics. Because we could now measure stress with faecal cortisol measures we could test for stress directly in free-ranging hares. The surprise was that this idea worked and Michael Sheriff capped off the stress hypothesis by showing that not only does predator-induced stress reduce reproductive rates, but the stress effect is inherited maternally in the next generation.
The bottom line: the whole dynamics of the snowshoe hare cycle are predator-induced. All the changes in mortality and reproduction are direct and indirect effects of predators chasing and eating hares. The experimental food/predator interaction was mechanistically wrong in targeting food as a major limiting factor.
This of course does not mean that food is irrelevant as an important factor to study in hare cycles. In particular very high peak populations damage shrubs and small trees and we do not yet have the details of how this works out in time. Secondary chemicals are certainly involved here.
Why does all this matter? Two points. First, the hare cycle is often trumpeted as an example of a tri-trophic interaction of food – hares – predators, when in fact it seems to be a simple predator-prey system, as Lotka suggested in 1925. Models of the hare cycle have proliferated over time, and there are far more models of the cycle in existence than there are long-term field studies or field experiments. It is possible to model the hare cycle as a predator-prey oscillation, as a food plant-hare oscillation, as a parasite-hare interaction, as a cosmic particle – hare oscillation, as an intrinsic social – maternal effects interaction, and I have probably missed some other combinations of delayed-density dependent factors that have been discussed. That one can produce a formal mathematical model of the hare cycle does not mean that the chosen factor is the correct one.
The other point I would leave you with is the large amount of field work needed to sort out the mechanisms driving the population dynamics of hares. Ecology is not simple. This enigma of the ten-year cycle has always been a classic example in ecology and perhaps it is now solved. Or perhaps not?
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Krebs, C. J., S. Boutin, and R. Boonstra, editors. 2001. Ecosystem Dynamics of the Boreal Forest: the Kluane Project. Oxford University Press, New York.
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Yan, C., N. C. Stenseth, C. J. Krebs, and Z. Zhang. 2013. Linking climate change to population cycles of hares and lynx. Global Change Biology 19:3263-3271.