, Volume 168, Issue 4, pp 935–946 | Cite as

Lemming winter habitat choice: a snow-fencing experiment

  • Donald G. Reid
  • Frédéric Bilodeau
  • Charles J. Krebs
  • Gilles Gauthier
  • Alice J. Kenney
  • B. Scott Gilbert
  • Maria C.-Y. Leung
  • David Duchesne
  • Elizabeth Hofer
Behavioral ecology - Original Paper


The insulative value of early and deep winter snow is thought to enhance winter reproduction and survival by arctic lemmings (Lemmus and Dicrostonyx spp). This leads to the general hypothesis that landscapes with persistently low lemming population densities, or low amplitude population fluctuations, have a low proportion of the land base with deep snow. We experimentally tested a component of this hypothesis, that snow depth influences habitat choice, at three Canadian Arctic sites: Bylot Island, Nunavut; Herschel Island, Yukon; Komakuk Beach, Yukon. We used snow fencing to enhance snow depth on 9-ha tundra habitats, and measured the intensity of winter use of these and control areas by counting rodent winter nests in spring. At all three sites, the density of winter nests increased in treated areas compared to control areas after the treatment, and remained higher on treated areas during the treatment. The treatment was relaxed at one site, and winter nest density returned to pre-treatment levels. The rodents’ proportional use of treated areas compared to adjacent control areas increased and remained higher during the treatment. At two of three sites, lemmings and voles showed significant attraction to the areas of deepest snow accumulation closest to the fences. The strength of the treatment effect appeared to depend on how quickly the ground level temperature regime became stable in autumn, coincident with snow depths near the hiemal threshold. Our results provide strong support for the hypothesis that snow depth is a primary determinant of winter habitat choice by tundra lemmings and voles.


Arctic ecology Energetics Habitat selection Rodents Temperature 



We thank G.-O. Cimon, M. Müller, E. McLeod, A. Fehr, J.-B. Lambert, H. Mailhot-Couture, V. Lamarre, J. Rosa-Francoeur, G. Souchay, C. Morin, J.-F. Therrien, N. Perreault, P. Bertrand, S. Pellerin, M.-A. Valiquette, M. Sirois, P.-Y. L’Hérault, É. D’Astous, L. Mercier, V. Duclos and students of the Renewable Resources Management Program (2008) at Yukon College for assistance in building and dismantling the fences. We also thank A. Fehr, D. Fehr, S. McLeod, J.-B. Lambert, S. Pellerin, V. Duclos and H. Mailhot-Couture for help in mapping winter nests and Nigel G Yoccoz for his comments on an earlier draft of the paper. The research relied on the logistic assistance of the staff of the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP, Natural Resources Canada), the Rangers of Yukon’s Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, the staff of Ivvavik and Sirmilik National Parks, and the staff of the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) International Polar Year program, the Canadian federal government’s International Polar Year program (Project MD-021) and the Northern Student Training Program, both administered by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence ArcticNet, the PCSP, and Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. This is PCSP contribution No. 031-11.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Donald G. Reid
    • 1
  • Frédéric Bilodeau
    • 2
  • Charles J. Krebs
    • 3
  • Gilles Gauthier
    • 2
  • Alice J. Kenney
    • 3
  • B. Scott Gilbert
    • 4
  • Maria C.-Y. Leung
    • 5
  • David Duchesne
    • 2
  • Elizabeth Hofer
    • 3
  1. 1.Wildlife Conservation Society CanadaWhitehorseCanada
  2. 2.Département de Biologie and Centre d’Études Nordiques, Pavillon VachonUniversité LavalQuébecCanada
  3. 3.Department of ZoologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  4. 4.Renewable Resources Management ProgramYukon CollegeWhitehorseCanada
  5. 5.Wild Tracks Ecological ConsultingWhitehorseCanada

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