Mountain hares in the Alps threatened by climate change, study says

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Climate change is endangering the future of mountain hares in the Alps, and their decline will impact other animals, according to a Swiss study published on Wednesday.

The hares – which play an important role in the Alpine food chain – will drop in numbers if temperatures increase and snow surfaces melt earlier, said the report by the Swiss Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape (WSL) and the University of Bern.

Because the hares live at high altitudes, they are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Cold-adapted species, like the hares, also have trouble regulating their body temperature during hotter summers, leading to heat-stress.

A decrease in their cold-weather habitat means they will also not be able to find sufficient food and shelter, wrote Kurt Bollmann, one of the report’s authors. The report was published in the journal Global Change Biology.

This decrease in habitat means the animals will be unable to mix and breed in the way they do now, leading to genetic impoverishment in the species.

The researchers estimate that the number of mountain hares in Switzerland could decrease by one third by the end of the century.

Bollman estimates the mountain hare population in Switzerland at up to 23,000. Currently, the population is not endangered, said Bollmann.

The hares, however, are prey for larger animals such as owls, foxes and the golden eagle. Therefore a drop in the hare’s population will impact other species.

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