The lemming is one the cutest animals in the world. These small adorable creatures play an important role in the ecosystem. Let’s embark on a journey of discovery lemming facts, from their legendary population explosions to their astonishing survival strategies.
1. They change color seasonally
Lemmings are small rodents belonging to the Cricetidae family and the subfamily Arvicolinae, along with voles and muskrats. There are approximately 20 lemming species, classified based on their habitats and behaviors. These include the wood lemming, Arctic lemming, north American brown, Siberian brown, Ungava collared, Richardson’s collared, Wrangel, northern collared, southern bog, northern bog, red tree vole, amur, meadow vole, bank vole, yellow steppe, steppe, singing vole, muskrat, tundra vole, and woodland vole lemming.
Because there are different species, their size is also varied. The smallest ones like the steppe and the wood lemming have a body length of approximately 12 cm (4.7 in) (excluding the tail) and weigh around 30 g (1 oz). On the other hand, larger species like the Norway can reach a body length of up to 15 cm (6 in) and weigh about 130 g (4.6 oz). Despite their size variations, all species have tails that are no longer than 2 cm (0.8 in) in length.
These creatures, characterized by their small, furry bodies, possess a round shape and are enveloped in long, thick fur that acts as insulation against the harsh Arctic cold. They boast short tails, stubby legs, snouts, whiskers, ears, and eyes. All of these characteristics help them preserve the heat to survive in the tundra.
These adorable animals also come in a variety of hues, such as brown, gray, yellow-brown, and black. The vibrant shades of their fur potentially function as a cautionary signal to predators, signifying their readiness to fiercely protect themselves.
Nevertheless, collared lemmings distinguish themselves through their remarkable seasonal transformation. During the summer months, their fur adopts a gray tone with a distinct dark stripe along their back, while in winter, their coats transition to a snowy white color.
These rodents are found in the Arctic and subarctic areas of North America, Europe, and Asia. They inhabit countries such as the US, Sweden, China, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Greenland. These remarkable creatures possess a remarkable ability to adapt to diverse environments. They can live (primarily) in cold, treeless tundra regions with permanently frozen soil or in grasslands and northern forests.
Lemmings, as herbivores, have a wide-ranging diet that includes moss, leaves, bulbs, grass, roots, berries, shoots, and lichen. However, due to their inability to process glucose effectively, they tend to consume fewer fruits. With continuously growing incisors, these primary consumers can eat tougher vegetation.
Their diet may not be highly nutritious. To make up for this, they consume a significant amount of food to sustain themselves. They also store grasses and sedges in underground food caches for future use.
4. Lemming vs hamster
Lemmings and hamsters, two beloved rodents, share remarkable similarities yet possess distinctive and individual traits.
|Appearance||rounder shape with longer fur||shorter fur with more color variants|
|Habitat||the northern areas with cold climate||warmer and dryer places|
|Range||the US, Scandinavia, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and China.||Syria, Belgium, Romania, northern China, and Greece|
|Pet||They are not kept as pets||popular pets|
5. They live underground
In the winter, lemmings take refuge in tunnels and grass nests hidden beneath the snow. Inside their underground burrows, they create specific areas for resting, bathing, and nesting. They build their nests using a mixture of grasses, musk ox wool, and feathers.
Their intricate network of tunnels allows them to stay active throughout the harsh winters. These species don’t need to hibernate. Dwelling beneath the snow helps them stay warm and safe from predators since the underground temperatures are higher. They consume stored grasses for sustenance.
During years when there are population explosions, lemmings undergo sporadic migrations. These migrations are triggered by a combination of factors, including mild winters, early springs, and late autumns characterized by plentiful food sources and reduced predation. The rapid reproduction during these favorable seasons leads to a significant increase in their numbers during the summer.
As a result, some lemmings may choose to migrate in the late summer. However, it’s important to note that most of them only travel short distances during these migrations, except for the Norway species. We’ll talk about this later.
6. They are aggressive
Lemmings typically lead solitary lives, but they come together for breeding and migration purposes. However, some species can live in groups. They are both diurnal and nocturnal animals, which are active throughout the day and night.
They employ various techniques to communicate and interact with each other, including scent marking and sounds. To ward off predators, these rodents employ a unique defense behavior by emitting a loud bark or piercing scream. Despite their small size, when faced with predators, these small animals become aggressive and fearlessly expose their sharp front teeth with a high-pitched acoustic display.
Lemmings have the ability to run at speeds of approximately 3 mph, while collared species can reach speeds of up to 5 kmph. In addition to running, they are also proficient swimmers and can traverse bodies of water to look for new habitats. Their thick coat is actually waterproof, which proves beneficial when they swim in lakes and ponds. However, it is important to note that if the distance they have to swim surpasses their physical capabilities, they may drown.
7. Their population goes up and down
Lemmings have a remarkable ability to reproduce. They achieve sexual maturity just 5 – 6 weeks after being born. In the summer, they can give birth to 8 litters of 6 offspring each. Females only undergo a gestation period of approximately 3 weeks. These species possess a remarkable capacity for rapid breeding when food resources are plentiful.
These adorable newborns are brought into the world in cozy burrows beneath the snow, ensuring their safety and warmth throughout the challenging Arctic winter. The mother diligently cares for her offspring, nourishing them with milk until they are capable of venturing out to find food on their own. Lemmming’s lifespan is quite short, they can live no more than 2 years.
The population of lemmings experiences significant fluctuations, characterized by periods of near-extinction followed by boom years of overpopulation. These boom years are typically triggered by favorable conditions, as mentioned previously. During these periods, they disperse to look for food and new habitat.
However, these migrations pose challenges for lemmings, as they may encounter obstacles such as lakes or rivers. Some lemmings may perish due to hunger or drowning. Once they reach a new suitable place, the surviving ones quickly reproduce, initiating the cycle once again. A notable example of this reproductive pattern is observed in Norway lemmings in Sweden and Norway, where they follow a four-year cycle.
Collared species in Greenland do not migrate, however, they still face a comparable destiny. This is because their population fluctuations significantly influence the predator population, particularly ermine.
When there is a surplus of lemmings, predators flourish and experience rapid reproduction. Consequently, the lemming population diminishes, resulting in the predators dying off due to starvation. As the number of predators decreases, the rodents regain the ability to reproduce. Thus, the cycle continues to repeat itself.
8. Lemmings Don’t kill themselves
Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not engage in mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. This misconception originated from the portrayal of lemmings in the Disney movie “White Wilderness,” which featured staged footage of the rodents plunging to their demise. The myth gained additional traction through the widely played video game Lemmings, where players had to protect the creatures from inadvertently walking off cliffs.
In reality, these creatures do not migrate by leaping off cliffs or engaging in mass self-destruction. As mentioned above, they possess the ability to swim and are adept swimmers when the need arises.
When lemming populations grow, the increased pressure can cause a large-scale migration, and the presence of obstacles such as rivers or cliffs can induce panic and reckless fleeing. The young vulnerable ones may unfortunately drown while attempting to cross large bodies of water. This behavior, which was mistakenly interpreted as intentional suicide, led to the unfounded notion of lemmings possessing self-destructive tendencies.