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Arctic rodent monitoring in North America

Arctic rodents, such as lemmings and voles, are an important component of the tundra ecosystem. They are prey to many predators, both avian (owls, hawks, jaegers, falcons, gulls) and terrestrial (foxes, wolves and weasels). Populations of lemmings and voles are known to follow 3 to 5-year abundance cycles in many areas. Factors like food limitation, predation and inter-specific competition have been suggested to explain these cyclic fluctuations. In some areas, such as eastern Greenland and some parts of Scandinavia, arctic rodent cycles have been disrupted, possibly due to changes in snow cover triggered by climate change. The collapse of arctic rodent populations could have major effects on the entire tundra food web. Further research is needed to fully understand the interactions between these important prey species, their predators and climate change in the Arctic.

Lemmus trimucronatus © D. Fauteux

Arctic rodents have been identified as a key component to monitor by the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program, an initiative of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, in order to document the general health of the tundra arctic esosystem (Christensen et al. 2013 ). In a recent review, Ehrich et al. (in preparation) identified 49 sites across the circumpolar tundra biome where lemming populations have been monitored in recent years, including 15 in North America. We here present the sites where arctic rodents are monitored in the tundra biome of North America, as well as some advices on how to implement such monitoring programs and archive the data.

Dicrostonyx groenlandicus © A. Beardsell

Location of study sites

Study site Latitude Longitude
Barrow, AK (2 sites) 71.290 -156.640
Komakuk, YT 69.583 -140.183
Herschel Island, YT 69.567 -138.900
Tuktut National Park, NWT 68.893 -122.839
Daring Lake, NWT 65.867 -111.533
Walker Bay, NU 68.350 -108.083
Karrak Lake, NU 67.233 -100.250
Churchill, MB 59.000 -94.000
Rankin Inlet, NU 62.810 -92.099
Aulavik National Park, NWT 73.226 -119.591
Alert, NU 82.500 -62.000
Bylot Island, NU 73.133 -80.000
Igloolik, NU 69.400 -81.533
East Bay, NU 63.983 -81.667

Study site monitoring information

Site d'étude Période de suivi Espèce présente Chercheur Information de contact
Barrow (Utgiaģvik) 2004-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Richard B Lanctot & Sarah T. Saalfeld richard_lanctot@fws.gov
Barrow 1992-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Denver Holt owlmontana@blackfoot.net
Komakuk 2006-2010 Lemmus trimucronatus
Microtus oeconomus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Myodes rutilus
Charles J. Krebs et al krebs@zoology.ubc.ca
Herschel Island 2007-2010 Lemmus trimucromatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Microtus oeconomus
Charles J. Krebs et al krebs@zoology.ubc.ca
Tuktut National Park 2011-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Jay Frandsen jay.frandsen@pc.gc.ca
Daring Lake 1995-2017+ Myodes rutilus
Microtus pennsylvanicus
Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Karin Clark karin_clark@gov.nt.ca
Aulavik National Park 1999-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Jay Frandsen jay.frandsen@pc.gc.ca
Walker Bay 1990-2017 Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Lemmus trimucromatus
Charles J. Krebs & Douglas W. Morris krebs@zoology.ubc.ca
Karrak Lake 1994-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Myodes rutilus
Ray Alisauskas & Dana Kellett ray.alisauskas@canada.ca
Rankin Inlet 2008-2017 Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Lemmus trimucromatus
Myodes rutilus
Alastair Franke & Kevin Hakshaw alastair.franke@ualberta.ca
Alert 1998-2008 Dicrostonyx groenlandicus Guy Morrison & Jean-Rémi Julien  
Bylot Island 1993-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Gilles Gauthier gilles.gauthier@bio.ulaval.ca
Igloolik 2013-2017+ Lemmus trimucronatus
Dicrostonyx groenlandicus
Nicolas Lecomte & Marie-Andrée Giroux nicolas.lecomte@umoncton.ca
East Bay 1999-2017+ Dicrostonyx groenlandicus Paul Smith paulallen.smith@canada.ca
Churchill 1994-1997, 2010-2017+ Myodes gapperi James D. Roth jim.roth@umanitoba.ca

Monitoring methods

Based on their extensive field experience based on more than 25 years of monitoring lemmings at the Bylot Island field station, this research team has produced in 2015 a manual describing field methods to sample small mammal abundance in the Arctic.

As a follow up of this work, they also produced a second manual in 2018 describing in details the statistical methods to use when analysing field data collected on small mammals.

Finally, using the long term datasets collected on Bylot Island, they also conducted statistical analyses to see how well small mammal abundance estimates obtained with various methods (live or snap trapping, burrow, faeces or winter nest counts, and incidental observations) correlate with each other. They also determined how biases and precisions of estimates obtained with various monitoring methods changed with sampling effort and lemming densities, and provided recommendations for optimal sampling effort. This work was published in 2018 in Ecosphere, an open access journal.

The Government of the Northwest Territories has also produced a few documents with useful information and recommended procedures for small mammals monitoring:

Online data archiving

In order to better understand Arctic rodents and their cyclic abundance in North America, we encourage researchers to give public access to their datasets. The Centre d’études nordiques offers researchers the possibility to share their data online using the Nordicana D collection. Data are published in special issues indexed via an assigned Digital Object Identifier (DOI) which can then be used to cite those datasets as online publications.

Lemming monitoring on Bylot Island: DOI: 10.5885/45400AW-9891BD76704C4CE2

Online data archiving

A database is currently being developed to help researchers archive their data for better management. This tool will be freely available to download and use. Further details will be posted here when it becomes available.

Publications from North American lemming monitoring initiatives

Barrow (Utqiaģvik)

Saalfeld, S.T. & R.B. Lanctot. 2015. Conservative and opportunistic settlement strategies in Arctic-breeding shorebirds. The Auk 132: 212-234.

Komakuk & Herschel Island

Bilodeau, F., D. Reid, G. Gauthier, C.J. Krebs, D. Berteaux & A. Kenney. 2013. Demographic response of tundra small mammals to a snow fencing experiment. Oikos 122:1167-1176.

Krebs, C.J., D.G. Reid, A.J. Kenney & S. Gilbert. 2011. Fluctuations in lemming populations in north Yukon, Canada, 2007–2010. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89:297-306.

Reid, D.G., F. Bilodeau, C.J. Krebs, G. Gauthier, A.J. Kenney, B.S. Gilbert, M.C.-Y. Leung, D. Duchesne & E.J. Hofer. 2012. Lemming winter habitat choice: a snow-fencing experiment. Oecologia 168: 935-946.

Walker Bay

Dupuch, A., D.W. Morris, S.B. Ale, D.J. Wilson, and D.E. Moore. 2014. Landscapes of fear or competition? Predation did not alter habitat choice by Arctic rodents. Oecologia 174: 403-412.

Dupuch, A., D.W. Morris & W.D. Halliday. 2014. Patch use and vigilance by sympatric lemmings in predator and competitor-driven landscapes of fear. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 68: 299-308.

Morris, D.W., A. Dupuch & W.D. Halliday. 2012. Climate induced habitat selection predicts future evolutionary strategies of lemmings. Evolutionary Ecology Research 14:689-705.

Wilson, D.J., C.J. Krebs & T. Sinclair. 1999. Limitation of collared lemming populations during a population cycle. Oikos 87: 382-398.

Wilson, D.J. & R.G. Bromley. 2001. Functional and numerical responses of predators to cyclic lemming abundance: effects on loss of goose nests. Canadian Journal of Zoology 79: 525-532.

Karrak Lake

Samelius, G. & R.T. Alisauskas. 2009. Habitat alteration by geese at a large arctic goose colony: consequences for lemmings and voles. Canadian Journal of Zoology 87: 95-101.

Samelius, G. & R.T. Alisauskas. 2017. Components of population growth for Arctic foxes at a large Arctic goose colony: the relative contributions of adult survival and recruitment. Polar Research 36(sup1):6.

Samelius G., R.T. Alisauskas & S. Larivière. 2011. Seasonal pulses of migratory prey and annual variation in small mammal abundance affect abundance and reproduction by arctic foxes. Polar Biology 34: 1475-1484.


McDonald, R.S., J.D. Roth & F.B. Baldwin. 2017. Goose persistence in fall strongly influences Arctic fox diet, but not reproductive success, in the southern Arctic. Polar Research 36(sup1):5.

Roth, J.D. 2002. Temporal variability in Arctic fox diet as reflected in stable-carbon isotopes; the importance of sea ice. Oecologia 133:70-77.

Rankin Inlet

Jaffré, M., A. Franke, A. Anctil, P. Galipeau, E. Hedlin, V. Lamarre, V. L’Hérault, L. Nikolaiczuk, K. Peck, B. Robinson & J. Bêty. 2015. Écologie de la reproduction du faucon pèlerin au Nunavut. Naturaliste Canadien 139:54-64.


Julien, J.R., G. Gauthier, R.I.G. Morrison & J. Bêty. 2013. Survival rate of the long-tailed jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus) at Alert, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Condor 115:543-550.

Bylot Island

Duchesne, D., G. Gauthier & D. Berteaux. 2011. Habitat selection, reproduction and predation of wintering lemmings in the Arctic. Oecologia 167:967-980.

Fauteux, D., G. Gauthier & D. Berteaux. 2015. Seasonal demography of a cyclic lemming population in the Canadian Arctic. Journal of Animal Ecology 84:1412-1422.

Fauteux, D., G. Gauthier & D. Berteaux. 2016. Top-down limitation of lemmings revealed by experimental reduction of predators. Ecology 97:3231-3241.

Gruyer, N., G. Gauthier & D. Berteaux. 2008. Cyclic dynamics of sympatric lemming populations on Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology 86:910–917.


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