The regular large-scale population fluctuations that characterize many species of northern vertebrates have fascinated ecologists since the time of Charles Elton. There is still, however, no clear consensus on what drives these fluctuations. Throughout their circumpolar distribution, mountain hares Lepus timidus show regular and at times dramatic changes in density. There are distinct differences in the nature, amplitude and periodicity of these fluctuations between regions and the reasons for these population fluctuations and the geographic differences remain largely unknown. In this review we synthesize knowledge on the factors that limit or regulate mountain hare populations across their range in an attempt to identify the drivers of unstable dynamics.
Current knowledge of mountain hare population dynamics indicates that trophic interactions – either predator-prey or host-parasite – appear to be the major factor limiting populations and these interactions may contribute to the observed unstable dynamics. There is correlative and experimental evidence that some mountain hare populations in Fennoscandia are limited by predation and that predation may link hare and grouse cycles to microtine cycles. Predation is unlikely to be important in mountain hare populations in Scotland as most hares occur on sporting estates where predators are controlled, but this hypothesis remains to be experimentally tested. There is, however, emerging experimental evidence that some Scottish mountain hare populations are limited by parasites and that host-parasite interactions contribute to unstable dynamics. By contrast, there is little evidence from Fennoscandia that parasitism is of any importance to mountain hare population dynamics, although disease may cause periodic declines. Although severe weather and food limitation may interact to cause periodic high winter mortality there is little evidence that food availability limits mountain hare populations. There is a paucity of information concerning the factors limiting or regulating mountain hare populations in the Alps of Central Europe or in the tundra and taiga belts of Russia.
Future research on mountain hare population dynamics should focus on the interactions between predation, parasitism and nutrition with stochastic factors such as climate and anthropogenic management including harvesting.