Cameras Capture Unsettling Uptick in Canada's Meat-Eating "Cannibal Hares"

"I was surprised by the frequency that they scavenge and the diversity of species they will consume meat from."

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a killer rabbit that takes out three knights in one bloody scene. It’s hilarious because rabbits are so innocuous — or at least they used to be. New research posits that, while rabbits won’t be decapitating us any time soon, hares with a taste for meat are no longer so fanciful after all. They live in the Yukon, and they aren’t afraid to eat their enemies.

The consumption of dead flesh by herbivores is increasingly being observed in nature, scientists report in the December issue of Bio One. Look no further than the snowshoe hare, normally a herbivore: Between January 2015 and July 2017, Canadian researchers observed hares eating the flesh of grouse, Canadian lynx, and even other hares. Normally, the population cycles of snowshoe hares and lynx are closely linked, but it’s typically the lynx eating the hare as its primary food source. The natural order, however, seems to be turning upside down.

“There have been reports of hares scavenging in older natural history observations, but I was surprised by the frequency that they scavenge and the diversity of species they will consume meat from — particularly the Canada lynx, given they are the main predator of snowshoe hares,” first author Michael Peers tells Inverse.

snowshoe hare
A snowshoe hare, eating feathers along with grouse flesh.

Peers is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta who studies how climate change affects the lives of snowshoe hares.

The new research was part of a larger study on scavenger community dynamics: Peers and his colleagues placed carcasses of several species within the Kluane Lake area of Yukon, Canada and monitored these sites with motion-triggered cameras. Overall, snowshoe hares were observed visibly consuming or disturbing 12.4 percent of the distributed carcasses — about 20 out of the 161 deployed. The hares were more likely to eat meat in winter and didn’t touch the carcasses put out between May and August.

The hares most often munched on grouse, a type of game bird. “One thing that was especially surprising was the fact that hares consumed feathers of a spruce grouse carcass,” Peers notes, “I believe this is the first record of this behavior.”

snowshoe hare
The hares seemed to be particularly inclined to eat grouse.

While it appears that the number of incidents of scavenging herbivores is increasing, he and his peers are still in the process of understanding how often it happens and why. He theorizes that hares’ meat-eating behavior is a strategy for getting protein during the winter, when the vegetation they normally eat is low in protein content. One possible explanation for why this is only happening now is that the vegetation they normally rely on for protein is increasingly scarce, but only further research will tell.

Now, Peers plans to monitor scavenging in other areas of the snowshoe hare range to determine what factors lead to its occurrence and if it is widespread for the species. While being herbivores, he points out, snowshoe hares have always had the ability to eat meat. The more important question is whether these bloody dietary supplements are a long-term addition or just a wintery last resort.

Media via Michael Peers