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Graphic: What About Jackrabbits?

Photo: Jackrabbit
Jackrabbits are well suited to the shrub-steppe environment. Their buff-colored coats help them blend into the tan landscape.

Graphic: Background Information...

Jackrabbits are an amazing part of the shrub-steppe community. Both black-tailed jackrabbits and white-tailed jackrabbits are known to occur in lower Columbia Basin shrublands and grasslands. Black-tailed jackrabbits are the most common species of hares in the Basin; white-tailed jackrabbits are uncommon. Jackrabbits used to be plentiful in the shrub-steppe ecoregion, but their numbers have dwindled as humans have developed and populated most of the ecoregion. The white-tailed jackrabbit currently is considered a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife priority species.

Jackrabbits have been hunted extensively in the Columbia Basin since the early 1900s. But the elimination of sagebrush through agricultural and rural development and wildfire is the primary reason the number of jackrabbits has decreased in recent years. Predation by coyotes and humans also has contributed to the species' decline.

What do jackrabbits look like?
Jackrabbits are actually hares, not rabbits. The black-tailed jackrabbit is long-legged and lean, about 17-31 inches, and weighs 3-7 pounds. Its fur is buff-colored to blend in with the arid environment. Its relatively long tail has a black stripe, and its long brown ears have black tips. The white-tailed jackrabbit is 18-22 inches long and weighs 5-10 pounds. It is a brownish gray color in the summer and white or pale gray in the winter. Its tail is nearly always white.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

How do jackrabbits live?
Jackrabbits are primarily nocturnal and come alive as night falls. During the day, they use shrubs and/or shallow burrows for cover. They may lie crouched in "forms" they've made in the grass by using the same spot many times. On warm days they relax in the shade of a small bush or fence post and spend the day snoozing and grooming themselves. They feed mostly on needle-and-threadgrass, yarrow, turpentine springparsley, and tumblemustard. They depend heavily on shrubs such as sagebrush for protective cover. Jackrabbits are a sagebrush obligate species, meaning they need sagebrush to survive. Black-tailed jackrabbits are the principal prey of golden eagles and are an important food source for coyotes, common ravens, the great horned owl, long-eared owl, barn owl, ferruginous hawk, Swainson's hawk, and red-tailed hawk. Humans also are a predator of jackrabbits. White-tailed jackrabbits occur in sagebrush/bunchgrass habitats, generally at higher elevations than black-tailed jackrabbits. Their diet consists primarily of forbs during summer months and shrubs in the winter.

Drawing: Jackrabbit tracks

How are jackrabbits adapted to life in the shrub-steppe?
During hot summer days, jackrabbits sit in the shade with their ears flattened against their backs. This not only makes them hard to see, but helps keep them cool as blood passes into their ears, and their entire bodies are cooled by the breeze. Jackrabbits have a special set of smaller sharp teeth behind their bigger front teeth, which helps them snip plants and twigs. These teeth are unique to hares and rabbits. Jackrabbits also possess a special digestive system adapted to the shrub-steppe. They digest their food twice, which allows them to eat a lot of different kinds of vegetation. Other protective adaptations include keen senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing. The jackrabbits' large strong hind legs help them outrun prey. When jackrabbits are frightened, they duck down to hide, and their heartbeat slows, so their breathing won't give them away. If jackrabbits do have to flee, their heartbeat speeds up to three times the normal rate, pumping oxygen-rich blood to their muscles in preparation for flight. Jackrabbits can run with such speed that few dogs can catch them. Their speed is broken at the beginning of a chase by high long leaps. (They can leap up to 15 feet high and hop as fast as 50 mph.) They not only run fast, but run in a zigzag pattern to confuse predators.

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Even though it's increasingly difficult to spot a jackrabbit, students can take field trips to grasslands with sagebrush and search for signs of jackrabbits. These would include tracks, "forms," droppings, and gnawed shrubs.

Take a tour of the Interpretive Center in Toppenish, Washington, or one closer to your home, to learn about the importance of the jackrabbit to Native Americans. Native Americans hunted the jackrabbit for its meat and skins. You can also read folklore about the jackrabbit and write your own stories or myths about the animal.

Imitate how jackrabbits locate their young with the call and response method. Try this: Divide the class or a group of friends into two groups. Give each person in one group a different animal sound to make. Use the same animal sounds and do the same with the other group. Line up on opposite sides of an outside area and have each person find their partner by making their sounds and listening for the person making the same sound. If you are working with older children, have them close their eyes and try to locate their match.

Conduct your own field study of local animals. Every animal needs an appropriate environment in which to live, including people. Pick familiar animals to discuss.

Questions might include: What animals do we share our environment with? Tame and wild? What kind of place do these animals need? What animals live locally? How can you find out? Predict what you think you will find. Mark out an area of study on your school grounds, in a section of a nearby park or vacant lot, near your backyard bird feeder, or a view from the window of your home.

Decide on a time for observation and observe the area you've marked. It might be more effective if you make repeated observations over a period of time.

Questions a scientist might ask: Where did you see the animal-in a tree, on the ground, on the roof? What was the animal doing? Are there signs of other animals? Record the data. After a period of time, stop your observations and consider your data. What animals were common? Where did you see them? Were there any surprises? Were there other things that may have influenced your observations that you did not take into account when you set up the observations-for example, the weather or time of year? Analyze your data. You might want to ask the following questions: You may be looking at the numbers of species and also the number of individuals of each species. Do these numbers tell us anything about an area? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of a diverse population? Of a homogeneous population? How does the plant population effect the animal population? And vice versa? Invite a wildlife biologist to talk to you about what your interpretation of the data. (Adapted from the Wild Ones, Animal Neighbors a Study in Biodiversity.)

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Habitat Types on the Hanford Site: Wildlife and Plant Species of Concern, 1993. J.L. Downs, W.H. Rickard, C.A. Brandt, L.L. Cadwell, C.E. Cushing, D.R. Geist, R.M. Mazaika, D.A. Neitzel, L.E. Rogers, M.R. Sackschwesky, and J.J. Nugent, PNL-8942, Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  2. How Jackrabbit Got His Very Long Ears, 1994. Heather Irbinskas, Rising Moon Publishers, Flagstaff, Arizona.
  3. Nature's Children-Rabbits, 1986. Merebeth Switzer, Grolier Educational Corporation, Danbury, Connecticut.
  4. Night Rabbits, 1999. Lee Posey, Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta, Georgia.
  5. Rabbits and Hares, 1994. Annette Barkhausen and Franz Geiser, Garth Stevens Publishing, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  6. Rabbits and Hares, 1976. Robert Whitehead, Franklin Watts, Inc., New York.
  7. Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, 1990. J.A. Chapman and J.E.C. Flux. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Gland, Switzerland.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit - http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/rabbit/
  2. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit Habits - http://www.ehow.com/facts_6791709_blacktailed-jack-rabbit-habits.html
  3. Jackrabbits: Desert USA - http://www.desertusa.com/animal.html
  4. Jackrabbits: Remarkable Critters - http://southernnewmexico.com/Articles/Wildlife/Jackrabbits-remarkablecri.html

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Initial development and printing of this fact sheet was funded by an Eisenhower Grant to the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design; First Printing: December 1997; Web Development: WinSome Design

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series

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