An Ungava collared lemming, photographed outside of Salluit in July. (Photo by Gregory Rand)

The Arctic’s most populous mammal still a puzzle for researchers

Lemmings are ‘one of the most spectacular phenomena in the Arctic,’ says zoologist Dominique Fauteux

By Sarah Rogers

Zoologist and researcher Dominique Fauteux was out on the tundra outside of Salluit earlier this summer when he noticed a least six couples of rough-legged hawks, screeching at him from a distance.

The hostile sounds confirmed two things: that the birds were nesting, and because the hawks only nest when they’re well fed, that also meant there must be an ample supply of their main food source, lemmings.

Fauteux has spent the last several years studying the plant-eating rodents in Nunavut and, more recently, in Nunavik, and says he’s still equally impressed and puzzled by the furry creatures.

Lemmings are the most populous mammal in Canada’s Arctic, and the cyclical rise and fall of their populations has a major impact on the well-being of their Arctic predators, from hawks to snowy owls, to foxes, wolves and even polar bears.

“The Arctic is extremely dynamic; the wildlife is moving around and a big part of that is the lemming cycle,” said Fauteux, a research scientist with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

“They’re really at the base of the food chain for so many species. It’s one of the most spectacular phenomena in the Arctic.”

Following research trips to both Salluit in Nunavik and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut this past summer, Fauteux says it has been a good year for lemming populations, and as such, for the other species who rely on them.

But there are still many questions Fauteux’s research continues to pursue: why do lemmings rotate through such an extreme boom-and-bust cycle, and how is climate change impacting that cycle?

His main hypothesis is that predation drives lemming cycles. But Fauteux and his fellow researchers also find that warmer winters have created more difficult conditions for lemmings to thrive.

While there are a handful of lemming species that populate the Canadian Arctic, Fauteux discovered a new species to Nunavik in his research this summer — the northern bog lemming, which he had only previously seen in parts of Nunavut before. The Ungava collared lemming is another species common all over Nunavik.

Researchers catch the rodents with the help of live traps baited with peanut butter and oats. During his most recent trips North, Fauteux has also fitted lemmings with photo-sensitive collars, which allow researchers to study their behaviour in and outside of the boroughs.

“We don’t know a lot about those species, like their density and cycling,” Fauteux said.

“The cycle has never really been measured.”

Nunavimmiut have always noted the presence of small rodents — known as avingngaks, tiriak or nunivakkaks in Inuktitut — and their connection to the abundance of other wildlife.

Michael Cameron, a community leader and Uumajuit warden in Salluit, assists with Fauteux’s monitoring program and sees it as a way for the community to learn more about the lemming’s shifting role in the local food system.

“I’m still learning about them,” Cameron said. “They do have an important role in the ecosystem as they are food for foxes and owls, and we can see that during the years where there are many lemmings around.”

Cameron sees Fauteux’s research offering potential for hands-on collaborations with local students and community members.

“With the research in the region over the years and years to come, hopefully they are able to do some fieldwork with students from the schools,” he said.

“Children can learn hands on … and we have more awareness of how each animal, mammals, insects play a vital role in our ecosystem.”

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Jani marik Beaulne on

    Theres also Avinngaks that rely on sea food during winter times they go under ice cracks along shore line when tide goes low so i guess thats another type of lemming, i discovered that specie lol

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    • Posted by Jani marik Beaulne on

      I used to capture them both common rodents Avinngaks and Nunivakkaks and kept them in captivity, they both dont like each other, i made them fight in a small cage… as i grew up with help of elders knowledge I realized that was animal cruelty, then i read this article they put collars on them cute chubby fur balls i wasnt that cruel

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      • Posted by Oh for god’s sake… on

        yes you were. Running a rodent fight club is definitely more cruel than scientific collars.

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  2. Posted by S on

    “But Fauteux and his fellow researchers also find that warmer winters have created more difficult conditions for lemmings to thrive.”

    Ah, the inevitable, non-science conclusion

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    • Posted by sci on

      He literally went about this using the scientific method.

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      • Posted by The Non-Scientist on

        If it’s not a YouTube video by a user named “~x*Wake-Up!*x12223~”, it’s not science to “S”.

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      • Posted by S on

        to ‘sci’ and ‘non-sensist’; perhaps Fauteux felt he had perfectly valid reasons for allowing his statement to be published; let’s hope that minor details like funding and politics didn’t figure into the scientific-method calculation. Let’s hope lay readers don’t confuse hypothesis, with theory

        -“But Fauteux and his fellow researchers also find that warmer winters have created more difficult conditions for lemmings to thrive.” Perhaps he should be more circumspect before allowing the inevitable, non-science conclusion

        – “Zoologist and researcher Dominique Fauteux … has spent the last several years studying the plant-eating rodents in Nunavut and, more recently, in Nunavik, and says he’s still equally impressed and puzzled by the furry creatures.”

        – “But there are still many questions Fauteux’s research continues to pursue: why do lemmings rotate through such an extreme boom-and-bust cycle … ?”

        – “His main hypothesis is that predation drives lemming cycles”

        – “We don’t know a lot about those species, like their density and cycling,”

        – “The cycle has never really been measured.”

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  3. Posted by Appreciative on

    Thanks for an informative article and a beautifully detailed picture.

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  4. Posted by Notice the increase in foxes and birds of prey on

    Back in the day we didn’t have what kids have today, so we would drag a piece of wood attached to a rope and spend a lot of time on the land. We would pick up wildlife a lot. Lemmings and mice the most.

    We used to hunt for them for our wild caught wild birds and there used to be a shortage of them. We would release a live mouse or lemming in the vicinity of the bird and encourage its hunting behaviour. Sometimes the birds would even chase dogs and puppies. We would release the falcon/hawk/owl when it chose to fly off.

    I also kept foxes and other predators I can get my hands on and release them, too. I’d take them on hunts for lemmings and mice.

    I’ve noticed that since I was a child, the numbers of these predators, lemmings and mice have increased. Guess human interaction with this has a slight contribution to the survival rates of each species. Now I see some people treat them like pests. People don’t realize how privileged they are because, these animals were a little rare when I was growing up.

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