White Species : better understand them to better protect them

The vast European project to study the mountain hare and the rock ptarmigan, which has just been completed, has advanced our knowledge of these very discreet animals threatened by climate change. For CREA Mont-Blanc and its partners, it has also been an opportunity to experiment with new methods and technologies that are promising for scientific research.

mountain hare© Bertrand Muffat-Joly
rock ptarmigan© Bertrand Muffat-Joly.

A high point, but not a final point. On March 1st and 2nd, the participants of the project “POIA Espèces arctico-alpines 2020-2022” were in Barcelonnette in the Southern Alps for a closing meeting of this major program on the scale of the French Alps Financed by European funds, it has mobilized for 3 years 5 partners from all the alpine massifs (CREA Mont-Blanc, Parc national des Ecrins, Parc naturel régional du Queyras, Parc national du Mercantour, Office français de la biodiversité) round the study of two emblematic species of the high altitude: the mountain hare and the rock ptarmigan.

“They are comparable species, both discreet and little known, which like the cold and snow and change their coat or plumage according to the season to camouflage themselves. Their habitat is distributed in a rather similar way on the alpine massifs, and they are subject to the same constraints of reduced snow cover. The aim of this project was to understand how they evolve in the face of climate change,” explains Anne Delestrade, director of CREA Mont-Blanc.

The process involved many volunteers alongside the researchers, who walked a total of 2700 km in the mountains to collect 3800 samples.
These systematic surveys allowed us to know the parameters favorable to the presence of the mountain hare, particularly in relation to the European hare with which it competes in low altitude areas,” comments Anne.
The strong point of the project is that we were able to cover the entire Alpine area to model favorable habitats and their potential evolution until 2070. This is quite unique.”

In order to observe the distribution and behavior of these two white species, several protocols were set up simultaneously on the different massifs. For the mountain hare, the main one was the collection of droppings, rich in clues on the presence of the species in the studied areas and its evolution over the 3 years of the study, but also to compare the different populations thanks to DNA analysis.

Their habitat greatly reduced by 2070

For the rock ptarmigan, the protocol was mainly based on the compilation of visual observations made throughout the Alps by the project partners. In addition, feathers were collected in order to differentiate the populations genetically, and droppings were analysed to identify the presence of intestinal parasites. For both species, the results of this work anticipate a significant reduction in habitable areas in the coming decades, and their virtual disappearance from areas located at the margins of their current distribution. The very high altitude massifs (Mont Blanc, Vanoise, Ecrins) will nevertheless constitute refuge areas that the mountain hare and especially the ptarmigan will be able to colonise.

As this project comes to an end, the results are very interesting for the association, according to Anne: “During this joint work with the different partners, we have contributed to a better knowledge of these two species in the Northern Alps. The exchanges were very rich, with results on an Alpine scale that we did not have before. We also acquired know-how and methods on new technologies, which can be used to continue studying and preserving these species, which are difficult to monitor, but also other species within the framework of other programmes. The work on the white hare and the ptarmigan should in any case be continued, in a form yet to be determined, as they are far from having revealed all their secrets.

Learn more about this two species with this short animated film

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