Springhares look like very small kangaroos. Their name actually means “jumping hare” in Afrikaans (one of the official languages of the Republic of South Africa). They have a body length of 13 to 17 inches (33 to 44 centimeters) when standing upright on their hind legs, a tail length of 14 to 19 inches (35 to 49 centimeters), and weigh 6 to 9 pounds (2 to 5 kilograms). Springhares have short front legs and long, powerful hind legs. Their front legs are one quarter of the length of their hind legs. Each front leg has five toes with long, sharp, curved claws that are used for digging. Each hind leg has four toes with claws that look like hoofs. The second toe from the outside is longer than the other toes. The heels, soles of their feet, and base of their toes do not have any hair covering them.
Springhares have short, blunt heads, big eyes, and long eyelashes. Their ears are narrow, have thin hairs on the upper half, are naked on the inside, and are about 3 inches (7 centimeters) long. At times, their ears have the tendency to droop to their sides. They also have a tragus (TRAY-gus; prominence in front of the ear’s opening) that folds back and closes the opening of the ear to keep out sand when digging. Their necks are thin and muscular.
Long, soft, straight hairs cover springhares’ bodies. Springhares are colored pink-brown to gray on their upper half with some black or white hairs in the fur. On the lower half, they are brown-white. This same color also spreads upward in front of their thighs and on the inside of their legs. Their tails are mostly tan with a thick, dark brown or black brush at the tip. The shading of their colors depends on the area where they live. For example, springhares from eastern South Africa have fur that is paler than those that live in the western areas of South Africa.
Springhares can be found in Angola, Botswana, Congo, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Springhares live in areas that have dry and sandy soil. They also live where there are cattle grazing and crop cultivation (areas where preparation for growing crops is occurring). They stay away from rocky ground and areas with a lot of trees, and live in grassland areas.
Springhares build burrows (also known as warrens) for shelter and protection in the grasslands. They will oftentimes build more than one warren, and they can be up to 32 inches (82 centimeters) deep and can cover up to 1,200 square feet (112 square meters). The burrows are usually created near the largest tree or a clump of bushes within their living area. When digging these burrows, they fold their ears back and seal their nose, so sand does not disturb them. It is easiest for the springhares to dig these burrows when the soil is wet during the rainy season. Sometimes during digging, they will stop, turn around, and push the soil they have collected back with their legs and chest. They then use their hind legs to kick this soil above the burrow to be redistributed on the ground. They sometimes cover the entrance of the burrow with soil from the inside. Springhares also create tunnels within their burrows that can be up to 51 yards (46 meters) long.
Springhares also sometimes close down entrances to tunnels within their burrows by sealing them closed. Their burrows are formed in a circular shape and have many entry areas. There can be up to eleven entrances in a burrow. This makes it easier for springhares to escape if a predator, an animal that hunts it for food, gains access into their burrow.
Springhares mostly eat grass stems, bulbs, and fleshy roots. When they live in crop-cultivated areas, they will eat corn, peanuts, barley, oats, and wheat. Sometimes, they eat plant stems. This can be seen especially in grazed areas where they eat the lower stems or roots after other animals have already eaten the upper grass layers. When they have a very difficult time finding food, they will eat beetles, locusts, or other insects. When springhares eat, they sit up and use their tails as support. They like to eat in darkness, so they do not usually stay out and feed when there is a full moon.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
When springhares sleep, they sit on their hind legs, with their front feet and head in between their thighs and their tail placed around their head and body. They sleep during the day, because they are nocturnal (active at night), although they can occasionally be seen during the day. Their large eyes are signs that they are active during nighttime.
Springhares live alone or with another adult and young. They are not known for creating social units and usually do not communicate, with the exception of occasional low grunts. They can get along with one another in captivity, but aggression can also occur. When in the wild, they can also make male-female pairs.
Birds of prey, large carnivores, and humans are the main predators of springhares. Sometimes, when springhares first come out of their burrows at the beginning of the night, they leap into the air to try to scare off any predators that may be waiting for them. They cannot fight very well, but if they are very close to a predator, in an enclosed area, they will bite and kick fiercely with their hind feet, which have very sharp claws. However, it is more typical that they hop away from predators using their hind legs and head toward their burrow. Their great senses of sound, smell, and sight help them to stay away from predators. They also help them to notify other springhares of predators.
Springhares can be born at any time of the year. Females give birth in bare areas of their burrows, usually having only one offspring at a time, but twins do occur in rare cases. The average female springhare will have one young three times per year. At birth, springhares weigh around 9 to 11 ounces (256 to 312 grams). When they are seven weeks old, the young leave their mothers. They eat a lot of grasses at this point. They are then finished growing and go off to make their own burrows.
Springhares stand on their hind feet when in an upright posture and can travel using all four feet when they are eating or moving from place to place. When they jump, their tail becomes horizontal or curled upward. They can jump around 6 to 9 feet (1 to 3 meters) high and can also swerve sharply when they’re chased by humans or other predators.
SPRINGHARES AND PEOPLE
Humans hunt springhares in areas where they cause damage to crops. The springhares cause problems by destroying seed and root systems in these areas. They can also be hunted as a source of food to humans, especially in South Africa. People may also kill them for their fur. One method they use to capture springhares, whether for fur or food, is to flood their burrows with water, so that the springhares must come out, and can be more easily captured. Another method is to chase them by foot, but it can be difficult to grab hold of them. Springhares may also be dangerous to humans since they can transmit diseases like the bubonic plague, rickettsiasis, babesiasis, theileriosis, and toxicosis paralysis through parasites they may carry.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists springhares as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. This is due to the fact that their population is decreasing from poor habitat quality and hunting by humans.