Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 69, Issue 4, pp 571–581

Aposematism and crypsis in a rodent: antipredator defence of the Norwegian lemming

Original Paper

Abstract

Aposematism is unusual in herbivorous mammals, and exceptions help clarify its ecology and evolution. The Norwegian lemming differs from other rodents in colouration and behaviour. One hypothesis is that its black, yellow and white colours, loud calls and ferocious defence reduce predation by conspicuous aposematism. Another hypothesis is that the colouration is cryptic. These alternatives are tested in a detectability experiment comparing lemmings and sympatric grey-sided voles. All 18 observers detected a higher proportion of the lemmings, corroborating conspicuousness. Unlike smaller rodents, Norwegian lemmings often call from a distance at predators. The aposematism hypothesis predicts that cryptically coloured Alaskan brown lemmings will not call. In the field, Norwegian lemmings gave antipredator calls at a human observer in 36 of 110 encounters, but brown lemmings did so in only 1 of 39 cases. Most Norwegian lemmings called if surprised within a few metres but froze or fled silently farther away, relying on crypsis against distant predators. Small juveniles called as often as adults, a possible case of auto-mimicry. In an earlier experiment, Norwegian lemmings, in contrast with grey-sided voles, aggressively resisted attacks by a major avian predator of rodents. The tests corroborate the hypotheses that (1) distinctive, contrast-rich colouration, antipredator calls and threat postures of the Norwegian lemming form a multimodal suit of aposematic traits, warning predators that this is a more dangerous prey than the smaller sympatric voles, and (2) discriminability from undefended species is an important adaptive reason for conspicuous distinctness of many aposematic signals.

Keywords

Aggression Auto-mimicry Antipredator calls Colouration Voles Species distinction 

Supplementary material

ESM 1

With kind permission of © Alexander Rydén, 2011. All rights reserved (MPG 2.17 mb)

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology and EnvironmentUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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