The Ids of March
THE ONE THING that everyone knows about English hares is that they go mad in March. "Mad as a March hare" has been an everyday expression since at' least 1529. Lewis Carroll, of course, gave us a memorably certifiable March Hare, who displayed his dottiness by buttering the Mad Hatter's watch to make it run again and then dipping it into his tea.
The notion of leporine "madness" in March is actually based on repeated reports of hares wildly boxing each other's ears in that month, doing so for the most part with clublike forepaws, though now and then with roundhouse rights or lefts from their powerful hind legs. To generations of male English field observers nothing seemed more evident than that .. March was the big mating month for Lepus europaeus, the English hare, and the pugilists were males fighting males over females. One reputable animal encyclopedia describes how several male hares "pursue" a "female in heat, getting into tremendous fights with each other. . . until one emerges victorious and takes the female."
In the late 1970s a pair of British naturalists, Anthony Holley and Paul Greenwood, took up the study of hares in the county of Somerset. Harboring no thought of sex-role revisionism - a flammable topic among feminist-minded biologists these days - but simply determined to study hares in a natural habitat, they set to work on an elevated spotting site, installing long-lens video cameras ) to provide day-and-night surveillance of a drove of hares.
The inhabitants turned out to be a fractious lot. But to everyone's surprise, their comportment was intolerable not
merely in March but from January until t August. Earlier hare-watchers had missed this crucial fact - apparently because English hares are mainly nocturnal, tending to schedule the first event on the nightly card for after 5:00 P.M. Before March, in England, it tends to be too dark at five to see hares easily. After March the grass is high enough to obscure them from view. Evidently, then, the singular madness of hares in March is something of a misrepresentation.
But there was more. If hares in fact mate from January through August, then why, Holley and Greenwood wondered, should the randy bucks be rutting - a behavior associated, in their words, with "polygynous species where females are available for mating for only a short, synchronous period." In time the researchers were able to distinguish males from females by sight, and even to identify individual hares. Playing back the videotapes in slow motion, they discovered that males were not fighting other males in pursuit of power and sex. Rather, females were pummeling males, presumably to resist their advances.
The fights lasted as long as two minutes. The pattern was a short chase followed by a flurry of female blows, then another chase and another one-sided encounter - and so on for as many as thirty-four bouts. Though amorous males sometimes retaliated, they more often did not, even when heavily cuffed about the head and shoulders. Doe hares being larger than buck hares, some of the males ended up visibly scarred around the ears.
These goings-on, tersely described in Britain's Nature magazine, in some ways raise more questions than they answer. It would be tempting to believe that the females were simply testing males for their ability to take punishment, the better to identify strong and persistent fathers for their eventual offspring. Alas, contrary to the widespread male notion that no really means yes, the outcome of these exchanges fell short of intimacy. Nor was any later mating recorded between onetime sparring partners, an occurrence that might have led to speculation that while no doesn't mean yes, it's always nice to be asked twice.
Holley and Greenwood, who know something about hare social hierarchies think they know what is going on. Female hares, they suggest, are being loosely guarded by hopeful, run-of-themill kinds of males until near the moment of estrus, when a dominant male comes forward and drives the merely average males away. Sometimes though, a subordinate male gets ideas: and then gets his ears boxed by a female. Perhaps his timing is wrong. Perhaps he IS somehow genetically unsuitable or socially inept. Whatever the case, it seems likely that the whole thing makes him hopping mad.