The Climbing Hare
The climbing hare, Lepus scandus, is a species of rabbit that can be found exclusively in the Himalayan mountains. Originally thought to be a member of the Marmota genus, they were of little interest to scientists until the mid 20th century, because of their thought-to-be-trivial classification as well as their habitat, which made observation and capture vey difficult. It was only when modern genetic analysis was used for the first time, in the early 2000, that climbing hares were officially classified as belonging to the genus Lepus. But those that started studying them after the end of the second world war had expressed doubts about their adherence to the Marmota genus long before that.
Climbing hares live on steep mountain flanks, and are able to climb almost any kind of cliff with ease. Unlike their cousins, which have developed hind-legs that give them their famous jumping ability, climbing hares have developed front legs, which made their morphological relatedness that much harder to determine. Instead of jumping, they use the overdeveloped claws of their front paws to hang onto the rock. Then they pull themselves up with amazing force, capable of projecting them several meters straight up. Their underdeveloped hindlegs serve mainly to stabilize their position before and during flight.
The recent reclassification of climbing hares has brought with it many questions. Given that the species has undergone a drastic morphological change compared to its relatives, it is believed that the climbing hares' ancestors must have been trapped in the mountains at one point, forcing them to develop new capablities to thrive in their envrionment. How, or when exactly, this seperation happened remains unclear, and mitochondrial DNA analysis is undergoing to establish the exact moment of separation from their last common ancestor with the rest of the Lepus genus. However, the low genetic diversity inside the species already leads us to believe that it must have been a small group that got separated, or that selection was especially fierce.
For the indigenous population of the Himalays, the climbing hare has always had a special meaning. They are considered to be the spirits of those that have died on the mountains, and that are now free to climb them at their will. They are seen as a good omen, and many villages regularly bring them food offerings. In those parts of the Himalayas where China is in control, climbing hares are being hunted in the name of “pest control”, which has further incensed local populations against the chinese government. But for now, the population of climbing hares remains stable, and is even slightly increasing in certain regions.