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Lemming


The lemming is the tiniest mammal living in the Arctic. Actually, everything about it is tiny. It has a tiny body, tiny ears, tiny legs and tiny tail. It only weighs between one and four ounces and measures less than half a foot in length. This animal is basically the size of a banana.

A lemming looks like a vole or guinea pig. It is most often found in very cold climates such as that found in Alaska or Canada. This creature prefers open spaces to congested areas. In fact, it prefers glaciers. It digs a burrow for its home and camps out there in the cold winter months.

The lemming’s fur is like that of other Arctic animals. In the summer, its fur is brown, but in the cold winter when the snow starts to fall, its fur molts from brown to white. This is an adaptation its species has developed in order to survive in the Arctic. Its white fur serves as camouflage so that the lemming is not easily detected by predators. In addition to wearing white after *Labor Day, the lemming develops strong claws on its front feet. This helps the critter to dig its burrow through the heavy snow.

Maybe the most amazing detail about the lemming is that it does not hibernate in its burrow during the winter. It stays active during the extreme months. I can barely stand ten minutes in the cold, but this animal survives a whole winter outdoors. It does have some help, though. It creates a nest to serve as insulation, made up of feathers, grasses, sedges and even musk ox wool. Also, the snow above its burrow serves as a barrier from the harsh temperatures and biting winds. The lemming’s thick white fur and its small legs keep heat from escaping quickly, making it very capable of surviving in the tundra.

In spite of what you’ve heard, lemmings do not eat lemons. Actually, they eat sedges, twigs, bark, cranberries, willows, lichen, mosses, arctic cotton, and grasses. Or, if there is no food available, they will actually feed on other lemmings. And you thought your family got cabin fever during the long, cold winter.

When less food is available, the Scandinavian lemming will gather up its siblings and cousins and get out of Dodge. So, if you’re ever vacationing in Alaska and notice a herd of lemmings crawling around, they’re probably looking for food. The brown lemming and collared lemming actually compromise when making their habitats. Even if they live in the same general location, they tend to go their separate ways when burrowing. This makes more food available to both species since they are not in competition with each other.

Animals that feed on the lemming include arctic foxes, ermines, gyrfalcons, snowy owls, and jaegers, but because this creature is so small, it is not very high on the food chain.

One unique fact about the lemming is that its population tends to fluctuate every few years. This may occur due to lack of food, an increase in the number of predators, or changing temperatures. They live only about two years and produce three to seven offspring up to three times a year. Over-population is common with population spikes about every three years, falling to near extinction before bouncing back again.

Lemmings were featured in the Disney documentary White Wilderness. They were depicted in the film as committing suicide by jumping off cliffs because of a decrease in the amount of food. In fact, lemmings are good swimmers and will take to the sea in large groups in an attempt to migrate to less populated island locations. Often, they drown, leading people to speculate about lemming suicide.


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