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Wapusk National Park of Canada

Youth Corner: Who Am I?

Wapusk News - Volume 6, 2013

Lemming Lemming
© Parks Canada
Jill Larkin, Parks Canada Resource Management Officer, conducting small mammal monitoring in Wapusk NP Jill Larkin, Parks Canada Resource Management Officer, conducting small mammal monitoring in Wapusk NP
© Parks Canada

I am a small, arctic rodent that is active all year long. I look a bit like a small hamster. My legs, ears and tail are short and I can hide them in my fur to keep warm. In the summer, my fur may be one colour or patchy with many different colours, including black, grey and brown. In the fall, I grow a thick white winter coat to give me camouflage in the snow. My front claws also grow longer to help me dig through deep snow. In the summer, I build underground burrows where I sleep, raise babies (called ‘pups’), and hide from predators. I may have 3 litters or more in a single year with up to 7 pups at a time. My pups are born in spring, summer and sometimes during winter too! Can you figure out how many pups I can have in one year?

In the winter I live in the bottom layer of the snowpack, where I spend lots of time sleeping and looking for plants to eat. I build a warm and cozy bed using dried grasses and shrubs, which I shred with my sharp pointy teeth. I also have an area to use as a toilet (scientists call these latrines), and I make tunnels through the snow where I look for plants and roots to eat. In the summer, keep an eye out for my winter nests on the ground, as they remain there after the snow melts!

I am a lemming.

Here is an example of a simple food web in Wapusk National Park. See how important I am! Here is an example of a simple food web in Wapusk National Park. See how important I am!
© Parks Canada

The number of lemmings in the Arctic is not the same every year. About once every 4 years there are so few lemmings that the animals that eat us, like arctic foxes, don’t have enough food and so can’t have as many babies as usual. Other years, there are so many lemmings in the summer that we sometimes try to swim across big lakes and rivers to look for a less crowded place to live. Some of us drown from exhaustion while crossing. This is where the myth that lemmings try to commit suicide by jumping off cliffs comes from. The Inuit have a legend saying that lemmings fall from the sky, probably because so many of us suddenly appear in the spring in good years when we have had many pups in the winter.

I have a LOT of predators, including snowy owls, arctic fox, red fox, eagles, falcons, and ermines. Basically any predator bigger than me that lives on the tundra will eat me if they get a chance! I am a very important part of the Arctic food web. What do you think happens in years when we are found in large numbers?

Latin (scientific name)  Dicrostonyx richardsonii
English and French  lemming
Denee dlύn [brown lemming]
Cree  cheputsoowapikoses [northern collared lemming]
Inuktitut  Avinngaq [lemming] or kilangmiutak [collared lemming]
“one-who-comes-from-the-sky”

References:

  • Brandson, Lorraine E. Churchill Hudson Bay: A Guide to Natural and Cultural Heritage.The Churchill Eskimo Museum, 2011.
  • Canadian Wildlife Services 

Original text: Tereza Tomek, University of Manitoba Wildlife and Ethnoecology Field School 2008