Amid the understory of North America's boreal forests, the Canada lynx lies in wait for its favorite prey, the snowshoe hare. Positioning itself along one of the well-beaten trails connecting the hare's feeding and nesting sites, the lynx sits patiently, its mottled gray coat camouflaging it in the brush. When a hare happens by, the lynx makes its move, bounding from its cover and initiating an exhilarating chase in which the hare dashes one way, then another, frantically trying to evade its adversary. And whether for the thrill of the chase, the tantalizing taste of the hare, or a combination thereof, the lynx will wait hours on end for this moment, the opportunity to pounce on an unsuspecting snowshoe hare.
The relationship between the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) is considered a classic example of how interactions between a predator and its prey can influence population dynamics of the two species. Canada lynx populations rise and fall with fluctuations in populations of snowshoe hares. Thus, when hares are abundant, lynx populations expand, and when the density of hares is reduced, lynx are forced to hunt ground squirrels, grouse, and foxes. Though they occasionally kill larger animals such as a white-tailed deer, the shift away from hares takes its toll, and lynx populations ultimately shrink.
But while it is known that the growth or reduction of Canada lynx populations is tied to the population density of snowshoe hares, why hare populations fluctuate in the first place remains a bit of a mystery. Snowshoe hares experience changes in population density in cycles spanning periods of about 8 to 11 years. During a cycle, their density may increase by as much as 25-fold and then drop precipitously. It was once thought that the rapid declines were mainly the result of predation by lynx, but studies of snowshoe hare populations in places where lynx are not very abundant or are absent altogether—places such as Jacquot Island in southwestern Yukon and Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada—revealed that island snowshoe hares, like their mainland counterparts, also experience cyclic fluctuations.
The rise and fall in numbers of snowshoe hares and Canada lynx was observed more than two hundred years ago by trappers working for Hudson's Bay Company, which was once heavily involved in the fur trade. In the early 20th century, records of the number of lynx and hare pelts traded by Hudson's Bay were analyzed by biologist Charles Gordon Hewitt. In The Conservation of the Wild Life of Canada (1921), Hewitt graphed the data from the records for a period extending from 1820 into the first decades of the 1900s. His graphs emphasized the close relationship in population density between snowshoe hares and Canada lynx.
While analyses by biologists after Hewitt confirmed the fluctuation trends from the Hudson's Bay data, scientists have since struggled to identify the underlying reason for the cyclical growth of snowshoe hare populations. Proposed causes have ranged from disease to predation to constraints in food supply. The most significant factor driving fluctuations in snowshoe hare populations, however, appears to be simply exposure to stress, whether in the form of predation, disease, or scarcity of food.
A report published in 2009 in the Journal of Animal Ecology detailed the results of a natural monitoring study paired with an experimental study testing the effects of stress on snowshoe hare reproduction. The results revealed that female snowshoe hares have a strong adaptive response to stress. For example, when wild caught pregnant hares held in a pen were exposed to a dog for just a couple minutes every other day, the hares' reproductive output declined, with both number and size of offspring decreasing. Both the pregnant females used in the experiment and the pregnant females sampled in the wild, which were in the midst of a population decline, were found to produce high levels of the hormone cortisol, a substance produced by animals under stress.
Of course, as far as the Canada lynx is concerned, the more hares the better. Unfortunately, that ultimately translates into more stress for hares and a downward spiral in their populations. It's a roller coaster of a cycle, but the lynx seems content riding its ups and down.
Kara Rogers is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is also a member of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to the Britannica Blog, where she runs a series called Science Up Front. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.
This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.