, Volume 172, Issue 4, pp 1007–1016 | Cite as

The effect of snow cover on lemming population cycles in the Canadian High Arctic

  • Frédéric Bilodeau
  • Gilles Gauthier
  • Dominique Berteaux
Population ecology - Original research


Rising temperatures and changes in the precipitation regime will have a strong impact on the quality of the snow cover in the Arctic. A snow cover of good quality protecting lemmings from cold temperatures and predators is thought to be an important factor for maintaining the cyclic dynamic of their populations in the tundra. We examined if the characteristics of annual fluctuations (amplitude and shape of phases) in brown lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus) density could be determined by snow depth, snow density, sub-nivean temperature and persistence of snow. Using an 18-year time series of brown lemming abundance on Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic, we tested if snow variables could explain the residual variation between the observed lemming density and the one predicted by models where cyclicity had been accounted for. Our analysis provides support for the hypothesis that snow cover can affect the amplitude and possibly also the periodicity of lemming population cycles in the High Arctic. Summer abundance of brown lemmings was higher following winters with a deep snow cover and a low-density snow pack near the ground but was unaffected by the date of establishment or melting and duration of the snow cover. Two snow variables showed a temporal trend; mean winter snow depth tended to increase and date of establishment of the hiemal threshold occurred earlier over time. These temporal trends, which should be favourable to lemmings, may explain why healthy population cycles have apparently been maintained at our study site contrary to other Arctic sites.


Brown lemming Population fluctuations Small mammals Snow density Snow depth 



We thank D. Sarrazin for maintaining our weather stations, M. C. Cadieux and I. Laurion for their help in processing the meteorological data and M. Bernier and Y. Gauthier for help with field methods and material for snow pits. We also thank M. Desnoyers and E. Soininen for help in digging the snow pits and the numerous field assistants that have trapped lemmings over the years at our site. The research relied on the logistic assistance of the staff of the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP, Natural Resources Canada) and of Sirmilik National Parks, Nunavut. The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, 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, PCSP and the Fonds Richard-Bernard of the department of biology of Université Laval.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frédéric Bilodeau
    • 1
  • Gilles Gauthier
    • 1
  • Dominique Berteaux
    • 2
  1. 1.Département de Biologie and Centre d’Études Nordiques, Pavillon VachonUniversité LavalQuébec CityCanada
  2. 2.Chaire de Recherche du Canada en Conservation des Écosystèmes Nordiques and Centre d’Études NordiquesUniversité du Québec à RimouskiRimouskiCanada

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