Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 69, Issue 4, pp 571–581 | Cite as

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

  • Malte AnderssonEmail author
Original Paper


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.


Aggression Auto-mimicry Antipredator calls Colouration Voles Species distinction 



I thank the Swedish Research Council, Christer Jonasson and the Abisko Scientific Research Station for research grants, and the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, Barrow, Alaska, for fieldwork facilities. I am grateful to my field companions, in particular Sven Jonasson and Jan Uddén; to Nils Åke Andersson, Anders Angerbjörn, Lars Baer, Sven Jakobsson, Heikki Henttonen, Birger Hörnfeldt and Johan Wallander for information about lemming abundance; to Staffan Andersson, Donald Blomqvist and Gabriella Gamberale-Stille for helpful discussions; to Anders Angerbjörn, Tim Caro, Alecia Carter, Frank Götmark, Rolf Ims, Sami Merilaita, Joacim Näslund, Birgitta Tullberg and anonymous referees for constructive suggestions on the manuscript; and to Peter Myers and Larry Underwood for valuable help at Barrow. Alexander Rydén kindly provided the video clip of a Norwegian lemming. The Abisko experiment was kindly made possible with short notice by Urban Emanuelsson and his biology student group.

Ethical standards

The work complies with the laws of the country in which they were performed.

Supplementary material


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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