White-Tailed Jackrabbit Facts

Scientific Name: Lepus townsendii

White-tailed jackrabbit
The white-tailed jackrabbit is actually a hare rather than a rabbit.

Cadden & Bell Productions / Getty Images

Despite its name, the white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is a large North American hare and not a rabbit. Both rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae and order Lagomorpha. Hares have larger ears and feet than rabbits and are solitary, while rabbits live in groups. Also, newborn hares are born with fur and open eyes, while rabbits are born blind and hairless.

Fast Facts: White-Tailed Jackrabbit

  • Scientific Name: Lepus townsendii
  • Common Names: White-tailed jackrabbit, prairie hare, white jack
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 22-26 inches
  • Weight: 5.5-9.5 pounds
  • Lifespan: 5 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Western and central North America
  • Population: Decreasing
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

The white-tailed jackrabbit is one of the largest hares, only smaller than the Arctic and Alaskan hares in North America. Adult size depends on habitat and season, but averages between 22 to 26 inches in length, including a 2.6 to 4.0-inch tail, and 5.5 to 9.5 pounds of weight. Females are slightly bigger than males.

As its name suggests, the jackrabbit has a white tail, often featuring a darker central stripe. It has large black-tipped gray ears, long legs, dark brown to gray upper fur, and pale gray underparts. In the northern part of their range, white-tailed jackrabbits molt in autumn and turn white except for their ears. Young hares display a similar appearance to adults, but are paler in color.

White-tailed jackrabbit with winter fur
In the northern part of their range, white-tailed jackrabbits turn white in winter.  Neal Mishler / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

The white-tailed jackrabbit is native to western and central North America. It is found in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan in Canada, and California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming in the United States. The range of the white-tailed jackrabbit overlaps that of the black-tailed jackrabbit, but the white-tailed jackrabbit prefers lowland plains and prairies, while the black-tailed jackrabbit lives at higher altitudes.

Map of white-tailed jackrabbit range
White-tailed jackrabbit range. Chermundy / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Diet

The white-tailed jackrabbit is a herbivore. It grazes on grasses, dandelions, cultivated crops, twigs, bark, and buds. Jackrabbits will eat their own droppings if other high-protein food is unavailable.

Behavior

Jackrabbits are solitary, except during the breeding season. The white-tailed jackrabbit is nocturnal. During the day, it rests under vegetation in a shallow depression called a form. A jackrabbit has excellent vision and hearing, senses vibrations using its whiskers, and likely has a good sense of smell. Usually, the jackrabbit is silent, but it will emit a high-pitched scream when captured or injured.

Reproduction and Offspring

The breeding season ranges from February to July, depending on latitude. Males compete for females, sometimes aggressively. The female ovulates after mating and prepares a fur-lined nest under vegetation. Gestation lasts around 42 days, resulting in the birth of up to 11 young, which are called leverets. The average litter size is four or five leverets. The young weigh about 3.5 ounces at birth. They are fully furred and can immediately open their eyes. Leverets are weaned at four weeks of age and sexually mature after seven months, but they don't breed until the following year.

Conservation Status

The white-tailed jackrabbit conservation status is categorized as "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The rationale for the assessment is that the hare is fairly common throughout its large range. However, the species population is decreasing and the jackrabbit has been extirpated in some areas. While researchers are uncertain of the reasons for the population decline, it is at least partly due to the conversion of prairie and steppes into agricultural land.

White-Tailed Jackrabbits and Humans

Historically, jackrabbits have been hunted for fur and food. In the modern era, jackrabbits tend to be viewed as agricultural pests. Because they are not domesticated, wild hares do not make great pets. People sometimes mistake the solitary creatures as "abandoned" and try to rescue them. Wildlife experts recommend leaving baby hares alone unless they show obvious signs of injury or distress.

Sources

  • Brown, D.E. and A.T. Smith. Lepus townsendii . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T41288A45189364. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-1.RLTS.T41288A45189364.en
  • Brown, D. E.; Beatty, G.; Brown, J. E.; Smith, A. T. "History, status, and population trends of cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits in the western United States." Western Wildlife 5: 16-42, 2018. 
  • Gunther, Kerry; Renkin, Roy; Halfpenny, Jim; Gunther, Stacey; Davis, Troy; Schullery, Paul; Whittlesey, Lee. "Presence and Distribution of White-tailed Jackrabbits in Yellowstone National Park." Yellowstone Science. 17 (1): 24–32, 2009.
  • Hoffman, R.S. and A.T. Smith. "Order Lagomorpha." In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.
  • Wilson, D. and S. Ruff. Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1999.