Are there ‘Matacanes’ at the National Park?

Maybe the surprising size of the studied hares that dwell at Guadarrama’s mountain tops, is what inspired Juan Ruiz –Arcipreste de Hita- to write the “Enxiemplo de las liebres” contained in his ‘Libro del Buen Amor’ whilst trodding along ‘Malagosto’ Pass: “Andávanse las liebres en las selvas llegadas, sonó un poco la selva e fueron espantadas, fue sueno de laguna, ondas arrebatadas, las liebres temerosas en uno son juntadas”.

076 01 liebre nieve Hare populations at Sierra de Guadarrama are surprising due to their size as well as for the places where they live. One expects to find hares in their characteristic habitats such as cereal grassland, olive groves or stubble fields located in the southern areas of Madrid but never above 2,000m a.s.l. under snow cover in Sclerophyllous scrub habitats on ‘Calderuelas’ or ‘Peñalara’ areas.

Highland hunters from Madrid and Segovia are aware of their presence in the most inaccessible areas of the Sierra. Being asked about hares, they would most certainly say their abundance has decreased due to a change of use and the abandonment of sown lands, plough grasslands and bulbous meadow-grasses which were, once, plentiful in the lower parts of the valleys. However, if you insist and ask them about the summit populations, most of them will assure you that they are not hares but ‘matacanes’, clearly distinguishing them both.

Searching for ‘matacán’ meaning in the R.A.E. Dictionary, it can be defined as a hare suspicious of greyhounds which has survived from a hunting race. However, here at Sierra de Guadarrama, this definition makes no sense as greyhounds would not be a match for matacanes in these rocky surfaces, and so, here it refers to their surprising features and humongous size.

In the Iberian Peninsula there are three hare species, two of them endemic to our territory: broom hare Lepus castroviejoi restricted to Cordillera Cantábrica mountain range and iberian hare Lepus granatensis nationally distributed except for the northern part of Ebro river. There is another species distributed throughout Europe, the european hare Lepus europaeus which appears in the northern part of Ebro river.

‘Sierra de Guadarrama’´s hare population belongs to Lepus granatensis species, although the hypothesis proposed in this study is based on a morphotype perception of the summit population which is more similar to the European hare or mountain hare (Lepus timidus), typical of high mountain environment than to the iberian hare, to which, at least in theory and under taxonomical classification, it belongs. Both the european hare and the mountain hare were widely distributed, even after the last glaciation, thousands of years ago.

It is well known that ‘Sierra de Guadarrama’ has been a shelter for a large number of northern species that used to live at the mountain tops, remaining, for thousands of years, isolated from other northernmost colonies. Examples can be found related to vertebrates such as midwife toad, common wall lizard, Pyrenean desman, or even some insects such as dusky large blue and apollo butterfly.

076 02 trampas peloHence, we intend to detect molecular differences among the populations occupying habitats noticeably different as well as presenting morphotype dissimilarities though belonging to the same species. Those molecular variations could suggest the existence of distintive subespecies or even hybridisation with Northern species such as the european hare or mountain hare, as it has happened in other mountain areas from the north of Spain.

This is a collaborative project between the Research Centre of ‘Sierra de Guadarrama’ National Park and IREC-CSIC in which we have already collected 70 genetic samples from different areas of the Sierra. However, the main objective for this campaign is obtaining more genetic information from the individuals of the higher altitudes -outside hunting areas- which are particularly inaccessible.

Therefore, a hair trap system has been designed and distributed along the summit areas where plenty of traces have been found. These snares are very attractive to hares as they tend to scent-mark around them, identifying those areas as conspicuous for their territory.

Fernando Horcajada.
Biologist, Research Centre - Sierra de Guadarrama National Park .


Translation: Aurora de la Rosa