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Biological information about Lemmings
`The Lemming Zoo'

[photo of a (norway?) lemming]

The information provided here is taken from several sources. If you think that some statement is untrue it would be nice if you told me to correct it. I am studying computer science and not biology...

Common missunderstandings about Lemmings

Where are they living?

On the Northern hemisphere. Most species populate regions in the tundra or taiga. A few have specialized to live in savannahs and steppes, but I am not sure how much they have in common with the others.

[drawing of a (wood?) lemming]

The Lemming Species

Hierarchy and Classification

Due to lack of information, only the Latin and German names are available here.
Where have they been put in the Hierarchy:

Phylum: Chordata [German: Chordatiere]
Subphylum: Vertebrata [German: Wirbeltiere]
Class: Mammalia [German: Säugetiere]
Subclass: Eutheria [German: Höhere Säugetiere]
Order: Rodentia [German: Nagetiere]
Family: Muridae
Subfamily: Arvicolinae (Microtinae)
Remark: a former classification for Family has been: Cricetidae [German: Wühler]

A list of Lemming Species

Warning: The list of lemming species presented here will only be displayed correctly if you are using a browser capable of tables. If it doesn't, here is a plain text version of it

Table 1: List of lemming species
Latin name English (and other) name Home
Dicrostonyx - collared lemmings
Living in the tundra of North America and Asia.
Dicrostonyx exsul St. Lawrence Island collared lemming St. Lawrence Island (Alaska)
D. groenlandicus (torquatus) American arctic lemming
also called: Northern collared lemming
Greenland & Arctic Islands of N Canada
D. hudsonius Labrador collared lemming Labrador & N Quebec
D. nelsoni Nelson's collared lemming Alaska
D. richardsoni Richardson's collared lemming West of Hudson Bay in Canada
D. rubricatus Bering collared lemming N Alaska
D. stevensoni Stevenson's collared lemming Umnak Island in Alaska
D. torquatus Siberian arctic lemming (Collared lemming) Siberia
D. vinogradovi Wrangel lemming Wrangel Island & Siberia
Synaptomys - bog lemmings
Living in North America.
S. borealis Northern bog lemming Canada & Alaska
S. cooperi Southern bog lemming NE USA & SE Canada
Living in the taiga of Scandinavia and Siberia.
M. schisticolor Wood lemming
German: Waldlemming
taiga in Scandinavia & Siberia
Lemmus - brown lemmings
Living in the tundra of Europe, North America and Asia.
L. amurensis Amur lemming Verkhoyansk Mountains (Upper Amur)
L. chrysogaster (sibiricus) NE Siberia
L. lemmus Norway lemming
German: Berglemming
French: Le Lemming des Toundras
L. nigripes Black-footed lemming Pribilof Islands
L. sibiricus (trimucronatus) Siberian lemming (Brown Lemming) N Siberia W to White Sea & N/W Canada & Alaska
Lemmiscus, Lagurus and Eolagurus - steppe lemmings
Living in the steppes of Asia/North America.
Lemmiscus curtatus Sagebrush vole montane steppe of W USA
Lagurus lagurus Steppe lemming Ukraine - Mongolia & Sinkiang
Eolagurus luteus W Mongolia & N Sinkiang
Eolagurus przewalskii (lutens) N Tibet - S Mongolia

Norway Lemming

This description is still incomplete and will be updated in the future

German: Berglemming
French: Le Lemming des Toundras
Latin: Lemmus lemmus

This one is the most popular (at least in Europe) because its the one best studied for change in population count.

Their fur is coloured black, yellow and reddish brown on the back. They are living beyond the tree line in the mountains of northern scandinavia and nearby regions in NE Asia. In lemming years (years of high population) the density might become 100 to 250 per hectare. Their body is about 13 to 15 cm with an additional tail of about 1.5 to 2 cm. They are very agressive.

The reason for the cyclic change in population is still not completely understood. Anyway, the main cause for their mass migration is high density with decreasing/used up food supply. The cycle length lies between 3 and 5 years with an average of 3.8 years.

They change their location twice a year. In spring they start to migrate when the snow is melting. Autumn migration is driven by population density with high density leading to early movement. The Lemmings prefer nighttime for their migration.

In low density years the distance between their summer and winter biotopes lies within a magnitude of 10 - 100 m. They are staying in alpine regions then moving down in spring and up in autumn. In high density years their migration may take them to far away places and they use to move downwards in autumn too.

Their speed on land has been measured to be from about 3.6 km/h (autumn) to about 5 km/h (spring) moving 15 km per day. Water speed has been measured to be about 1 km/h crossing a 200 m wide lake.

Each lemming chooses its own direction and normally follows it alone and as close as possible. Groups of lemmings walk on the same path only when reaching hindrances. Their orientation seems to be mainly visual.

Information that came with the lemming picture

Lemmings, family Cricetidae, are rodents that are closely related to voles and meadow mice. The four genera are: Lemmus, true lemmings; Synaptomus, bog lemmings; Dicrostonyx, collared or Arctic lemmings; and Myopus, red-backed or wood lemmings. The animals live in open grasslands or tundras in north temperate or arctic regions. Lemmings measure 8-13 cm (3-5 in) in length and weigh only a small fraction of a kilogram. The fur is reddish or grayish brown above and lighter-colored below, and the tail is stubby. Collared lemmings turn white during winter, an adaptation to their snowy environment. The animals burrow to make underground nests, which they line with grass or moss. They eat grass, roots, sprouts, and other plant materials. The mating season lasts from spring to fall, and the female bears up to 9 young after a 20-day gestation period.

The legend that lemmings deliberately join in a death march to the sea, where they drown, is untrue. Lemmings migrate periodically from their home area when their population begins to exceed the food supply. They swim across streams and rivers in order to find land with food; sometimes, however, lemmings try to swim bodies of water that are too deep and may drown in great numbers.

Everett Sentman

[Lemming Picture]

The Norway lemming, Lemmus lemmus, of Scandinavia is best known for its mass migrational behavior.

Remark: To me, the lemming drawing doesn't look like a Normay lemming as written in this remark. It looks more like a Wood Lemming to me, but I am not an expert so I may be wrong. Tim R. Nagy wrote that it might be a southern bog lemming.

Main references used for this page:

  1. G. B. Corbet & J. E. Hill, A World List of Mammalian Species, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press 1991
  2. J. Tast, Lemmus lemmus - Berglemming, in Handbuch der Sägetiere Europas, 2/I (Nagetiere II), pp. 87 - 105, by Jochen Niethammer and Franz Krapp, Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Wiesbaden, 1982

Other references dealing with lemmings:

  1. The northern collared lemming homepage, Tim R. Nagy, 1995
  2. Brown (Siberian) Lemmings in Alaska
  3. an introduction to lemmings
  4. The Biology of Lemmings, edited by N.C. Stenseth and R.A. Ims, Academic Press, London, 1993 (ISBN 0-12-666020-4)
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