Lepus capensis taxonomy

The issue of the taxonomy of Lepus capensis and its relatives is very complicated. The alarming signs of a seriously flawed classification are all there: species limits are often shown along country borders; European taxa are more easily recognized than those elsewhere; most papers are based on mtDNA studies and/or Phylogenetic Species Concept. I tried to make sense of all this, and here are a few thoughts:

(1) Nuclear DNA data show that L. europeus and L. capensis are conspecific. See: Ben Slimen et al. 2008. On shortcomings of using mtDNA sequence divergence for the systematics of hares (genus Lepus): An example from cape hares. Mammal. Biol. 72:25-32., and also Ben Slimen et al. 2005. Biochemical genetic relationships among Tunisian hares (Lepus sp.), South African Cape hares (L. capensis), and European brown hares (L. europaeus). Biochem. Genetics 43:577-596.

(2) However, there are many forms that are very similar to L. capensis: L. corsicanus, L. granatensis, L. habessinicus, and the three Asian forms (L. tolai, L. tibetanus and L. yarkandensis). The latter three have been split based on small morphological differences, and AFAIK there’s been no molecular studies except on mtDNA, which is meaningless in Lepus (see Alves et al. 2008. The ubiquitous mountain hare mitochondria: multiple introgressive hybridization in hares, genus Lepus. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. B. 363.1505:2831-2839). The only exception is Liu et al. (see below), who found L. tolai and L. tibetanus to be conspecific.

(3). I think it’s most likely that there are just 3 Lepus species in Africa: the widespread L. capensis (including habessinicus) and L. saxatilis (including victoriae, microtis, and fagani), and L. starcki of Ethiopian highlands. I also strongly suspect that there is just one species of L. capenis group in Asia: L. capensis, including L. europaeus, L. tolai, L. tibetanus, and L. yarkandensis. Indeed, a nuclear DNA study has shown L. yarkandensis to be nested within L. tolai (Liu et al. 2011. Reticulate evolution: frequent introgressive hybridization among Chinese hares (genus Lepus) revealed by analyses of multiple mitochondrial and nuclear DNA loci. BMC Evol. Biol. 11:223).

I might be completely wrong on everything, but until there is a solid study of nuclear DNA of all those taxa, there’s no way of knowing for sure.

1 Comment

  • Charles Foley

    Hi Vladimir,

    Thanks for taking time to summarise this. I agree that hare taxonomy is a real pigs-ear at the moment, and its often virtually impossible to distinguish the species in the field based on current morphological descriptions. I don’t know much about hares in other areas, but I agree that on the African continent there are probably only three species: L. capensis (Cape hare), L. starcki (Starck’s hare), and what I call L. victoriae (Scrub hare or African Savanna hare), which is part of the L. saxatilis complex. The problem is that even the Cape and Scrub hares can be fiendishly difficult to tell apart – unless you can find a dead one and examine their teeth.

    These days I tend to separate the two species as much on behaviour and habitat as morphology, unless I see an animal with a classic morphological features (Scrub hare: gently convex forehead, long muzzle, ears longer than head, white spot on forehead; Cape hare: angular forehead, short muzzle, ears approx. same length as head). Problem is there can be overlap even among these features. If people are interested I’ll see if I can find my list of behavioural characteristics, which help narrow things down significantly.


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