Colours of Wildlife: Springhare

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

This is a picture of a Springhare (or sometimes spelled as two words, Spring Hare). Properly this is a Southern Springhare (Pedetes capensis) rather than an East African Springhare (Pedetes surdaster) but you can’t really tell that by looking at it; they look quite the same but can be told apart by their distribution. The Southern Springhare occurs in Southern to South–Central Africa, while the East African Springhare occurs in Central–East Africa, mainly Tanzania and Kenya.

This is yet another animal that is quite inappropriately named. Despite its long–eared, rabbit–like face and head, this is NOT a hare or a rabbit. Those are Lagomorphs, a group that is almost but not quite rodents, while the Springhare is a true rodent. Springhares are unique in the rodent order: they constitute a single genus, Pedetes, with just two species, and these constitute the entire family Pedetidae. They are distant relatives of all other rodents, with a possible link to the equally unique Anomalures (which I also hope to describe to y’all soon). Anomalures are tree living, most having membranes to glide with, while springhares are terrestrial and hop to get around. Both families are restricted to Africa and, if they are indeed related, their common ancestor would have lived more than 30 million years ago.

In build, Springhares resemble small kangaroos, with long hind legs which they hop around on, short forelegs that they keep folded close to the chest most of the time, and a long, stout tail used for balance while hopping. But once again there is no meaningful relationship with kangaroos either. They are almost as far from each other as it is possible to be while still being mammals. Kangaroos are marsupials, which form the second main branch of modern mammals (a third group, the egg–laying Monotremes which includes the Platypus and the spiny Echidnas, is a very small remnant of an ancient group that might have given origin to the other two). So, springhares are closer relatives of dogs and cats, cows and horses, mice, whales, bats and ourselves, than of kangaroos. The resemblance between them and kangaroos is yet another instance of convergent evolution which I’ve mentioned a few times already. This is where species in the same sort of habitat and living the same sort of lives develop similarities in their build and appearance.

In the case of the Springhare, its hopping style of locomotion is a cost–effective way of moving long distances in a habitat poor in resources. It’s the same case with kangaroos living on the vast and dry Outback of Australia. Springhares are built on a smaller scale though. They are as big as real rabbits, with a bodyweight of 3–4 kg (6.6–8.8 lbs) but their tails make them longer, reaching a total length of about 90 cm/3 ft. They can cover 4 m/13 ft in a single leap.

Springhares are nocturnal. During the day they remain in burrows that they excavate using their short forelegs. For this purpose the front feet have long, curved claws. While digging they can fold their ears back and close up their nostrils to prevent sand and dust from getting in. Long whiskers and facial bristles help them sense their way by touch in the dark burrows. They will block the entry with a wad of soil during the day to prevent potential predators from intruding. At night they dig themselves out and forage for food. They do not cover very large distances, at most moving a few hundred metres away from their burrows. Outside the burrows they are not territorial, and several springhares may forage together in the same area. While foraging they will move about on all fours like rabbits. Their food is short grasses as well as herbs. They will gnaw the above–ground parts and also dig up the roots. Occasionally they’ll eat fruits of low–growing plants, or even catch and eat insects such as locusts. A springhare eats sitting upright, supported on the back legs and using the little fore–paws for manipulating food.

For the sake of digging their burrows, springhares need habitat with loose but not too loose soil, such as sandy plains or margins of rivers, pans and lakes. The landscape must be flat, the soil must be well–drained, and the grass must be short and fairly sparse. In such suitable habitat springhares can occur at a density of 10 per hectare (that comes out to 256 per square mile). Their burrows can be 50 metres in length, but reach only about a metre in depth. There can be two to eleven entrances to each burrow. A burrow is used by a single animal, except when a female gives birth and tends to her baby. They don't use any bedding material. They sleep sitting with the head bent down beneath the hind feet, and the tail curled around the body.

In the wild, lots of things eat springhares. They’re small enough to be preyed on by eagles and owls, but large enough to be attractive to larger carnivores like leopards and other big cats. And of course everything in between. Their maneuverability and hopping prowess do help, as do their alertness and fine senses. Apart from their long outer ears they have very big inner ears, and are very sensitive to sounds and vibrations. They also have large eyes and an excellent sense of smell. At night they will exit their burrows very carefully, first poking out their noses, sniffing around a bit; then comes the rest of the head, ears pricked. If the coast is clear they'll emerge completely, but sit on the heap of soil at the mouth of the entrance for a while to make a final safety check before moving on. Still, they're often caught. They'll try to defend themselves by kicking with the hind legs, and might try to bite with their sharp, gnawing teeth also. They used to be a staple food of the hunter–gatherers such as the San people of the Kalahari, though very few humans still live like that. They're still frequently killed, if not for food, then for their skins (their fur being long and soft), or because they're seen as agricultural pests. Overall, predation doesn't seem to hurt their numbers too much. . . they're more vulnerable to habitat destruction or alteration.

Like most rodents, springhares breed fast and easily. Their habitats provide them with ample food year–round, and a typical female can give birth three times per year. Usually there's a single baby, but about 1% of the time, twins. The young are well–developed at birth, furry, open–eyed and able to move by themselves, but are suckled in the burrow until they're seven weeks old and about half–grown. Once outside, they quickly learn to fend for themselves. They're sexually mature at the age of eight months.

Overall, springhares are not at risk of extinction. They are still numerous where they occur. They play a valuable ecological role, not only supplying food for many other creatures, but their burrows also being used by many other animals for shelter. These include pangolins, many kinds of mongooses, lizards and snakes, and even a kind of bird, the Anteating Chat.

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