David Gray’s observations during the late winter breeding season at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island (April and May) are the first to document an unusual display-behaviour by male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus). This behaviour marks the start of the Arctic hare’s breeding season.

The display behaviour occurs at the end of a resting and grooming period. The behaviour follows grooming of the body fur. While the male stands with legs tensed, the long, slender, dark-coloured penis is uncoiled and stretched out along the belly, often extending out beyond the forelegs. This whip-like extension of the penis lasts about 1.5 seconds and is repeated up to 12 times in one bout.

David Gray first saw this behaviour in early April. It is most common in late April and early May. Later in the season it coincides with other breeding behaviours; it goes on until the mating season is over in late May. It happens within large groups of both sexes and also when a male is alone.

The function of this behaviour may be to visually stimulate females into breeding and receptivity. Male Arctic hares show increased interest in females before the females ar Read More
David Gray’s observations during the late winter breeding season at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island (April and May) are the first to document an unusual display-behaviour by male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus). This behaviour marks the start of the Arctic hare’s breeding season.

The display behaviour occurs at the end of a resting and grooming period. The behaviour follows grooming of the body fur. While the male stands with legs tensed, the long, slender, dark-coloured penis is uncoiled and stretched out along the belly, often extending out beyond the forelegs. This whip-like extension of the penis lasts about 1.5 seconds and is repeated up to 12 times in one bout.

David Gray first saw this behaviour in early April. It is most common in late April and early May. Later in the season it coincides with other breeding behaviours; it goes on until the mating season is over in late May. It happens within large groups of both sexes and also when a male is alone.

The function of this behaviour may be to visually stimulate females into breeding and receptivity. Male Arctic hares show increased interest in females before the females are actually receptive. Therefore, males must be reproductively active in order to initiate the breeding season. The male Arctic hare’s display behaviour may be triggered by the increase in daylight in March (in the High Arctic, light levels steadily increase from December to April). The timing of the male display coincides with the time that breeding should commence in order for young hares to have time to sufficiently develop before winter.

The timing is another reason to think that something besides increasing light levels in spring stimulates female Arctic hares into receptivity, even though lengthening daylight stimulates some other female mammals (including some hare species) into receptivity. By the time the females need to be receptive, no further increase in the amount of daylight is possible because by mid April the sun is above the horizon for all 24 hours of the day.

The timing of receptivity, copulation and ovulation is important. (Ovulation is stimulated by copulation). All breeding needs to occur in a limited and specific time so that the young are born at the optimum time for adequate summer feeding and growth that will allow them to survive the coming winter.

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

Arctic Hare

The penis of this male Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) can be seen below its stomach. In Arctic hare penis display, the penis is flipped out then retracted. It appears as a black coil.

Image Credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

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


Arctic Hare

The Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) standing third from the left is a male doing a penis diplay.

Canadian Museum of Nature

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


In order for breeding to progress, male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) have to find females and assess their sexual status by smell. Thus, the major investigative behaviour during the breeding season is the approach by adult males to any other individual. Each male is searching for a receptive female with which to copulate. He will know if she is receptive by her scent (hormones) and her behaviour (not aggressive).

The investigating male usually moves cautiously, with hesitant steps, twitching nose and forward ears. The male usually approaches from a downwind position, often requiring a circling approach. If the approaching male is upwind and the individual under investigation is unaware of his approach, the approaching hare may touch the rear of the other. This may lead to an aggressive encounter if the approached hare is not a receptive female.

Usually males approach any individual that approaches the group, regardless of whether it’s an unknown hare or a straying member returning to a group. At the height of the breeding season, these approaches become more common and, at times, almost frantic as several males circle and investigate the same Read More
In order for breeding to progress, male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) have to find females and assess their sexual status by smell. Thus, the major investigative behaviour during the breeding season is the approach by adult males to any other individual. Each male is searching for a receptive female with which to copulate. He will know if she is receptive by her scent (hormones) and her behaviour (not aggressive).

The investigating male usually moves cautiously, with hesitant steps, twitching nose and forward ears. The male usually approaches from a downwind position, often requiring a circling approach. If the approaching male is upwind and the individual under investigation is unaware of his approach, the approaching hare may touch the rear of the other. This may lead to an aggressive encounter if the approached hare is not a receptive female.

Usually males approach any individual that approaches the group, regardless of whether it’s an unknown hare or a straying member returning to a group. At the height of the breeding season, these approaches become more common and, at times, almost frantic as several males circle and investigate the same individual and even each other. The reaction of the female determines the approaching hare’s next move. If the female leaves, he may chase after her. He may simply depart after sniffing, he may face aggression or he may approach more closely and initiate sexual contact.

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

Arctic Hare

A male Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) with ears in a position like the letter V approaches a female.

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

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


Hare ’boxing’ has previously been interpreted as fighting-for-dominance between male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus), but observations by David Gray of known hares at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island confirm that many such encounters are between males and females during breeding season. There, most dramatic and lengthy fights took place close to the time of copulation at the end of April.

The continual sniffing of females by individual males often leads to aggressive encounters between males and females: if a male approaches an unreceptive female too closely, he may be vigorously rebuffed.

The fight begins when the female turns to face the male and rises up on her hind legs in order to bat at him with her forepaws, claws extended. Usually, the male backs down immediately and the female does not give chase, so most fights are short. If the male is persistent, however, a longer fight may result, with both male and female ’boxing’, biting and grabbing at the other with the teeth. Tactics include scratching with fore-claws, biting at the fur, neck and body, and grabbing the opponent’s limb with their teeth. Injuries may resul Read More
Hare ’boxing’ has previously been interpreted as fighting-for-dominance between male Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus), but observations by David Gray of known hares at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island confirm that many such encounters are between males and females during breeding season. There, most dramatic and lengthy fights took place close to the time of copulation at the end of April.

The continual sniffing of females by individual males often leads to aggressive encounters between males and females: if a male approaches an unreceptive female too closely, he may be vigorously rebuffed.

The fight begins when the female turns to face the male and rises up on her hind legs in order to bat at him with her forepaws, claws extended. Usually, the male backs down immediately and the female does not give chase, so most fights are short. If the male is persistent, however, a longer fight may result, with both male and female ’boxing’, biting and grabbing at the other with the teeth. Tactics include scratching with fore-claws, biting at the fur, neck and body, and grabbing the opponent’s limb with their teeth. Injuries may result: hares with facial scars are not uncommon.

There is also male-male aggression in late winter at the time of breeding, usually involving displacements from a food source. However, this kind of aggression is much less frequent, is less violent and is of shorter duration.

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

arctic hare

A male and a female Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), fighting during the breeding season.

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

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


Arctic Hare

A fight between a male and a female Arctic hare.

Image Credits: David R. Gray

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


The ’madness’ of European hares (Lepus europaeus) is a well known cliché that refers to certain behaviour during spring mating. It was not too surprising, then, to discover that the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) also shows signs of what might be called ’madness’ at mating time.

’Madness’ describes the chaos of attempted and successful matings in a large group of hares. There is a lot of activity, with males investigating, following, chasing and checking, and females either rebuffing (and fighting) or accepting them.

In the case of the European hare, breeding occurs in March, so biologists talk of ’March Madness’ (hence the mad March hare of Alice-in-Wonderland fame). Spring arrives later in the Canadian Arctic, however, so, because most courtship activity at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island was observed by David Gray in the late evening and very early morning, he dubbed it ’Midnight Madness’.
The ’madness’ of European hares (Lepus europaeus) is a well known cliché that refers to certain behaviour during spring mating. It was not too surprising, then, to discover that the Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus) also shows signs of what might be called ’madness’ at mating time.

’Madness’ describes the chaos of attempted and successful matings in a large group of hares. There is a lot of activity, with males investigating, following, chasing and checking, and females either rebuffing (and fighting) or accepting them.

In the case of the European hare, breeding occurs in March, so biologists talk of ’March Madness’ (hence the mad March hare of Alice-in-Wonderland fame). Spring arrives later in the Canadian Arctic, however, so, because most courtship activity at Sverdrup Pass on Ellesmere Island was observed by David Gray in the late evening and very early morning, he dubbed it ’Midnight Madness’.

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

Arctic Hare

A wild chase in a group of Arctic hares during 'midnight madness'. The hare nicknamed Blue Bun by David Gray is in the middle of the group; he has an orange stain on his side.

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

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


Arctic Hare

In this scene of 'midnight madness', a pair of Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) is copulating (centre), while two males (the hare at left with the orange stain and the hare third from the right) are investigating females.

Image credits: David R. Gray
Canadian Museum of Nature

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


Arctic Hare

Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) fighting and copulating. Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) fighting and copulating.

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:
  • discuss the parade of male arctic hares;
  • summarize what the ’Midnight Madness’ of the arctic hare is;
  • explain some aggressive behaviours of the arctic hare.

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