A hare at the heart of the Sahara

Depending on the region, it is called Arabian Hare, Brown Hare, Iberian Hare. Biologists call it Lepus capensis. They distinguish it from its congener, European Hare Lepus europaeus, to which it is very similar, but in scale model: 40-54 cm only, while its congener can reach 60-70cm and is, on average, almost double its weight: 4-5kg. Are they two different species or two subspecies?  The issue is yet unresolved …


Lepus capensis (photo : Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences).

In any case, they are mammals, of the order of rodents. Devoid of canines, their jaws only have molars and, separated by a wide empty space, the incisors. Bevelled and with continuous growth (and wear), the latter amount to two per jaw.

So equipped, these herbivores can effectively go at vegetation … provided it can be found and best used. In an arid environment, such as the Sahara, this is not always simple. Rainfall is very low, temperature extremely high (it can exceed 40°C) … with cold spells in January and February, average evaporation much higher than in the Mediterranean area, and very strong winds … Moreover, in late summer, only little remains to eat for our hare: stunted bushes, succulent plants with high salt content, a meagre fare which it can nonetheless make the most of. Therefore – no offense to gourmets – the habit, shared by the rabbit, of “reingestion” of its droppings, is an excellent way to get some vitamins that bacteria synthesize within their cecum (a large pocket between the small intestine and large intestine).

And furthermore, this other adaptation demonstrated in captive hares: they maintain their body weight by drinking salt water, in which case European Hare would show serious weight loss … The desert hare can thus take advantage of consuming succulents containing highly salty juice. Besides which it is content with less food than its European congener and better digests dry matter.

Perhaps would it even be able, like South African Spring Hare, to use roots and tubers, resources unavailable to other herbivores and that plants accumulate during the fall and winter. A point that should be checked out in order to complete the picture of its adapting to life in the desert.


Atriplex halimus. Photo : Carsten Neuhaus (Wikicommons).

Yet, if to detect the presence of our hare, and thereby map its occurrence, “all that is needed” is to find its droppings, seeing it in flesh and fur is not as simple: its long ears, highly mobile, catch the slightest sound … and when disturbed, it is by racing – a very rapid succession of leaps – that it seeks salvation. Recent distribution maps show that it is the most common medium-sized mammal in the Sahara … even though in the desert’s Eastern Erg, a victim of heavy poaching, it is growing scarce. In the mountains of the Great South, on the other hand, its density is very high in places, thereby favouring the survival of its predators: mainly Caracal, a medium-sized feline, and more occasionally Golden Eagle and Verreaux’s Eagle – two diurnal birds of prey – whereas the hare’s habits are rather crepuscular and nocturnal.

While during the hottest hours of the day other desert rodents, such as South African Spring Hare, enjoy the freshness of their burrow, Sahara Hare would rest in depressions in the shade of a bush. But there again, this needs to be better documented.


Photo : David Bygott

One point, however, is definitely proven: the thermal regulator role played by the ears … it’s true in rabbits, where these appendices are covered with a network of blood vessels, whose dilatation favours heat loss. Our hare being provided with yet much larger ears, it is likely the system can only be more efficient!

Its social life amounts to very little: it lives alone, most of the time. It can perhaps be seen in small groups during mating season. In areas where it breeds throughout the year, the number of young per litter would be reduced. Leverets are born with their eyes open and are able to get moving shortly after birth, which is not the case of young rabbits. Many die before the age of two, victims of a disease or predator.

As its lifestyle can vary according to its habitat, it would be interesting to study it more closely. One could, for this purpose, equip a few individuals with a radio transmitter and, by radiotracking, get further information about their activity rate, the extent of the area they operate in and any seasonal variations. Enthusiasts take note …

Authors (copyright) : Chantal Dengis and Maxime Metzmacher

English translation : Anne Lindsey (Loon Traduction)

References :

- Chapman, J.A. & Flux, J.E.C. 1990. Rabbits, Hares and Pikas. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group.
– De Smet, K. 2012. La répartition des grands mammifères dans le désert algérien est très mal connue ! Nature Vivante, 10 : 2-9.
– Eckert, R., Randal, D., Burgrenn, W. & French, K. 1999. Physiologie animale: mécanismes et adaptations. De Boeck Supérieur.
– Gautier, E.F. 1928. Le Sahara. Payot, Paris.
– Hainard, R. 2003. Mammifères sauvages d’Europe. Delachaux et Niestlé. Lausanne-Paris.
– Kronfeld, N., A. Shkolnik. 1996. Adaptation to Life in the Desert in the Brown Hare (Lepus capensis). Journal of Mammalogy, 77/1: 171-178.

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