Ear flashing behaviour of cape hares (Lepus capensis) in South Africa


PO Box 10476, Beaconsfield  8315, South Africa. E-mail: jankamler@hotmail.com


Previous research showed Lepus species in North America have developed elaborate behaviours to confuse pursuing predators, mostly by flashing white patches of fur from different body parts. For example, antelope (Lepus alleni Mearns) and white-sided (Lepus callotis Wagler) jackrabbits flash white patches of fur on each side of their rump, sometimes in alternating order, while running in a zig-zag pattern from potential predators (Seton, 1953; Dunn, Chapman & Max, 1982; Best & Henry, 1993a,b). Black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus Gray) flash their ears in alternating order while running in a zig-zag pattern (Kamler & Ballard, 2006). Because their ears have black tips with whitish fur on the backside, this alternating flash of conspicuous colouration probably confuses predators when being chased at high speeds (Kamler & Ballard, 2006).

In Africa, little is known about the escape behaviour of Lepus species, and flashing of white fur has not previously been reported. For example, cape hares (Lepus capensis Linnaeus) reportedly run with ears erect when flushed, pursuing a zig-zag course (Skinner & Chimimba, 2005). Under extreme stress, they might also run fast low to the ground with their ears flat on their shoulders (Skinner & Chimimba, 2005). However, the backside of cape hare ears have conspicuous colouration, including overall sparse fur with prominent black tips and white fur lining the outer edges (Fig. 1). Thus, cape hares also might flash this conspicuous colouration to confuse pursuing predators.

Figure 1.

 Illustration of the ear movements of cape hares while being chased at high speeds (>35 km h−1) in South Africa. The flashing of conspicuous colouration on the backside of their ears (i.e. overall sparse fur, prominent black tips, and outer edges lined in white fur) may confuse predators while being chased at high speeds and/or lure attacks away from vital body parts

The purpose of this paper is to determine if cape hares exhibit ear flashing behaviour. During nocturnal research on Benfontein Game Farm (BGF; 28°53′S, 24°49′E), on the border of Northern Cape and Free State provinces, I often observed cape hares running in front of my research vehicle, before they eventually turned off the road (hereafter, pseudo, chases). After initially observing that cape hares exhibited ear flashing behaviour, I began noting their exact behaviours during pseudo-chases, along with the date and speed at which we were travelling.

Results and discussion

From November 2005 to December 2006, I recorded 25 pseudo-chases on BGF while driving 35–50 km h−1. The mean length of pseudo-chases was 37 s (range = 10–120 s). During all chases, cape hares moved their ears up and down, either in unison or singly (Fig. 1), indicating they exhibit ear flashing behaviour. Cape hares flashed their ears in an apparently random order, while running mostly straight, although occasionally in a zig-zag pattern. This behaviour appeared to occur only when cape hares were running at high speeds (>35 km h−1), suggesting ear flashing is exhibited only during high-speed chases.

This is the first report of ear flashing behaviour among Lepus species in Africa. Because the conspicuous colouration on the backside of cape hare ears probably enhances of the visibility of ear flashing, I speculate this behaviour is an adaptation to confuse predators when being chased at high speeds, similar to that reported for other Lepus species. Alternatively, it could be an adaptation to lure predators to direct attacks towards nonvital body parts. In other species, flashing of conspicuous colouration while fleeing has been related to predator confusion and/or lures to direct attacks away from vital body parts (e.g. Wickler, 1968; Robinson, 1969; Hailman, 1977; Powell, 1982). Finally, because ear flashing behaviour occurs in both black-tailed jackrabbits and cape hares, it may occur worldwide in other Lepus species with conspicuous ear colouration, although this remains to be investigated.


I thank De Beers Consolidated Mines for allowing me to conduct research on their property. Financial support during this study was provided by a Research Fellowship from the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, U.S.A., and a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission, Brussels, Belgium. I thank U. Stenkewitz for creating the figure.