Although we don’t know everything about the diet of Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus), we do know that they feed on many different flowers and plants. Their main food is the Arctic willow (Salix arctica). They eat all parts of the plant. Their feeding can be destructive: they will break off sizable twigs and even dig up roots.

The flowers of purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) are a favourite food in late spring and early summer. As it moves from plant to plant, the Arctic hare will mow the flowers down, eschewing the careful nibbling of the muskoxen and caribou, which share a liking for this plant.

Although we classify them as herbivores, hares occasionally eat meat. At Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island, David Gray saw hares nibble at the skin and hair on a muskox carcass. In Rankin Inlet (in Nunavut), Arctic hares frequent the town garbage dump in winter to search for food and in Baker Lake (in Nunavut) they break into garbage bags awaiting pick-up; presumably they are eating kitchen scraps, which, in this part of the world, likely contain little plant material.
Although we don’t know everything about the diet of Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus), we do know that they feed on many different flowers and plants. Their main food is the Arctic willow (Salix arctica). They eat all parts of the plant. Their feeding can be destructive: they will break off sizable twigs and even dig up roots.

The flowers of purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) are a favourite food in late spring and early summer. As it moves from plant to plant, the Arctic hare will mow the flowers down, eschewing the careful nibbling of the muskoxen and caribou, which share a liking for this plant.

Although we classify them as herbivores, hares occasionally eat meat. At Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island, David Gray saw hares nibble at the skin and hair on a muskox carcass. In Rankin Inlet (in Nunavut), Arctic hares frequent the town garbage dump in winter to search for food and in Baker Lake (in Nunavut) they break into garbage bags awaiting pick-up; presumably they are eating kitchen scraps, which, in this part of the world, likely contain little plant material.

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.

Arctic Willow

An Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) has chewed away some of the bark on this Arctic willow (Salix arctica).

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Arctic Hare

A typical winter pose of a feeding Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) shows a dignified air, half-closed eyes, and a willow twig dangling from its mouth. It takes about three minutes for a hare to eat a 25 cm-long (10 in.) Arctic willow (Salix arctica) twig.

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Purple Saxifrage

This Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is eating purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia).

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Hares in winter usually feed in areas where snow is shallow or plants are exposed by wind. When their food is buried under snow, Arctic hares rely on their sense of smell to locate it. They dig through snow with a rapid beating movement of their forefeet. In order to break a tough icy crust on top of the snow, they stamp sharply with their forefeet or chew at the crust with their teeth.
Hares in winter usually feed in areas where snow is shallow or plants are exposed by wind. When their food is buried under snow, Arctic hares rely on their sense of smell to locate it. They dig through snow with a rapid beating movement of their forefeet. In order to break a tough icy crust on top of the snow, they stamp sharply with their forefeet or chew at the crust with their teeth.

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.

Arctic Hare Digging

The daily routine of finding food, digging it out of the snow and feeding goes on throughout the winter days of 24-hour darkness. With a good sense of smell and good night vision, Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) have no trouble feeding in the low light of winter. The colour of this video was enhanced in order to improve its visibility.

Image Credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Both mammals and birds prey upon the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus). The Arctic wolf is perhaps the most successful of the animals known to prey on adult hares. Even young wolves during their first autumn can successfully catch hares.

Although smaller than Arctic hares, Arctic foxes will attack a full-grown hare, but usually without much success. Young hares, however, often fall prey to hungry foxes, and ermines (Mustela erminea) probably also prey on young hares.

Among the predatory birds, the Gyrfalcon is a major hunter of hares. In summer, when the Gyrfalcons are raising their young, they regularly carry hares to the nest, first cutting them in half to ease the load. Hare bones and feet form part of the structure of Gyrfalcon nests on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Farther south, Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) also prey on Arctic hares.

Snowy Owls also feed on hares, particularly the young. The French common name of the Snowy Owl, harfang des neiges, comes from the old Anglo-Saxon name harfang, meaning ’hare-catcher’.
Both mammals and birds prey upon the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus). The Arctic wolf is perhaps the most successful of the animals known to prey on adult hares. Even young wolves during their first autumn can successfully catch hares.

Although smaller than Arctic hares, Arctic foxes will attack a full-grown hare, but usually without much success. Young hares, however, often fall prey to hungry foxes, and ermines (Mustela erminea) probably also prey on young hares.

Among the predatory birds, the Gyrfalcon is a major hunter of hares. In summer, when the Gyrfalcons are raising their young, they regularly carry hares to the nest, first cutting them in half to ease the load. Hare bones and feet form part of the structure of Gyrfalcon nests on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Farther south, Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) also prey on Arctic hares.

Snowy Owls also feed on hares, particularly the young. The French common name of the Snowy Owl, harfang des neiges, comes from the old Anglo-Saxon name harfang, meaning ’hare-catcher’.

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.

Arctic Wold

Arctic wolf (Canis lupus).

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Arctic Fox

An Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) chases a group of Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus).

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Arctic Hare

This Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) is fleeing from a cruising Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Flared nostrils and ear pointing behind are typical of alarm and flight behaviour.

Image Credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


A food chain is a simple feeding sequence that follows the transfer of energy as one organism eats or consumes another. For example, an Arctic willow plant (Salix arctica) is eaten by an Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), which is in turn eaten by an Arctic wolf (Canis lupus). The arrows in a food chain illustration show the direction of energy flow.

A food web is a series of interlocking food chains that show the transfer of energy through various feeding (or trophic) levels in an ecosystem. Starting with plants (producers), the energy flows to the herbivores (plant-eaters) and then on to the predators (meat-eaters). Decomposers (organisms that eat dead or waste plant or animal material), scavengers (larger organisms that eat dead animal remains) and parasites (organisms that feed on living plants or animals) are also part of a food web.

This Arctic food web focuses on the plants and animals most closely connected to Arctic hares in the Far North. In a food web for Newfoundland and Labrador, other species such as red fox (Vulpes vulpes), coyote (Canis latrans) and Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) would replace so Read More
A food chain is a simple feeding sequence that follows the transfer of energy as one organism eats or consumes another. For example, an Arctic willow plant (Salix arctica) is eaten by an Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), which is in turn eaten by an Arctic wolf (Canis lupus). The arrows in a food chain illustration show the direction of energy flow.

A food web is a series of interlocking food chains that show the transfer of energy through various feeding (or trophic) levels in an ecosystem. Starting with plants (producers), the energy flows to the herbivores (plant-eaters) and then on to the predators (meat-eaters). Decomposers (organisms that eat dead or waste plant or animal material), scavengers (larger organisms that eat dead animal remains) and parasites (organisms that feed on living plants or animals) are also part of a food web.

This Arctic food web focuses on the plants and animals most closely connected to Arctic hares in the Far North. In a food web for Newfoundland and Labrador, other species such as red fox (Vulpes vulpes), coyote (Canis latrans) and Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) would replace some of the Arctic species.

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.

This Arctic food web shows how producers, predators, scavengers and parasites are linked to the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus). The arrows show the direction of energy flow. Two general parasites, fleas and mosquitoes (species not identified), and decomposers in the form of blow flies (Boreelus atriceps), also derive energy from the Arctic hare.

Image credits: Imatics Inc.
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Arctic Fox

Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus).

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2004, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The student will be able to:
  • identify the diet of the arctic hare;
  • express the difficulty of finding food in the Arctic;
  • name the arctic hare’s predators;
  • describe the food chain of the arctic hare.

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