Supervisors: Dr Sílvia Pérez-Espona, Dr Fiona Houston, Dr Scott Newey (James Hutton Institute) and Dr Laura Glendinning
Land use and climate change will have profound and widespread effects on the distribution of plant communities. Understanding how these changes will affect wild herbivore populations is vital if we are to predict their responses and develop evidence-based management and conservation measures for both herbivores and plant communities.
The Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) is a native and iconic upland species in Scotland that is strongly associated with, and most numerous on, heather moorland habitats. However, mountain hares are widespread and also occur at lower densities in woodlands and other habitats. In response to concerns over their conservation and management, the Mountain hare in Scotland was recently given full protection under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Mountain hares demonstrate an intermediate feeding strategy and switch from a high-quality grass-dominated diet in summer to a low-quality bulk browse-dominated diet in winter. This diet adaptation along with their wide distribution and presence in different habitat types makes mountain hares an ideal model species to study how small herbivores may adapt to habitat change. The project will adopt an interdisciplinary approach and combine genomics and spatial analyses to assess seasonal changes in diet and gut microbiome composition of moorland mountain hares in Scotland. Initially, the project will focus on upland moorland populations, but there is also the potential to study woodland populations to assess changes in diet as woodland matures. Results from this project will provide novel insights into the adaptation of intermediate feeders to their changing habitats. Furthermore, accurate information on mountain hare diet will help inform the conservation and management of populations of this protected species.