This page contains lemming facts. We’ll find out all about the Arctic rodent with a rather strange reputation for jumping off cliffs. We’ll find out if its self-destructive tendencies are fact or fiction, and discover lots more lemming information along the way …
- This article is part of our Arctic Facts series.
- You can find out about more amazing Arctic animals here: Arctic Animals List.
Be sure to watch the video of a confrontation between a cat and a lemming. Which animal do you think runs away?
Lemming Facts: Introducing The Lemming
Lemmings are small rodents that live in the Arctic tundra. There are around 20 species of lemming, and they are close relatives of voles and muskrats.
Under certain conditions, lemmings undertake mass migrations to search for food and a new place to live. This has given rise to the myth that large numbers of lemmings deliberately jump off cliffs. We’ll find out more about this further down the page.
Lemming Scientific Name & Family
Lemmings are rodents, and members of the subfamily Arvicolinae (a subfamily is group of animals that share certain characteristics). Other arvicolines include voles and muskrats.
There are around 20 different species of lemming (this isn’t an exact number because scientists often disagree about whether an animal is a separate species or just a subspecies of another animal).
Below is a list of lemming species, together with their scientific names.
True Lemmings (Genus: Lemmus)
- Amur Lemming – (Lemmus amurensis)
- Norway Lemming – (Lemmus lemmus)
- Wrangel Island Lemming – (Lemmus portenkoi)
- Siberian Brown Lemming – (Lemmus sibiricus)
- North American Brown Lemming – (Lemmus trimucronatus)
Collared Lemmings (Genus: Dicrostonyx)
- Northern collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus)
- Ungava collared lemming (Dicrostonyx hudsonius)
- Nelson’s collared lemming (Dicrostonyx nelsoni)
- Ogilvie Mountains collared lemming (Dicrostonyx nunatakensis)
- Richardson’s collared lemming (Dicrostonyx richardsoni)
- Arctic lemming (Dicrostonyx torquatus)
- Unalaska collared lemming (Dicrostonyx unalascensis)
- Wrangel lemming (Dicrostonyx vinogradovi)
Wood Lemming (Genus: Myopus)
- Wood lemming (Myopus schisticolor)
Bog Lemmings (Genus: Synaptomys)
- Northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis)
- Southern bog lemming (Synaptomys cooperi)
Yellow Steppe Lemmings (Genus: Eolagurus)
- Yellow Steppe Lemming (Eolagurus luteus)
- Przewalski’s Steppe Lemming (Eolagurus przewalskii)
Steppe Lemming (Genus: Lagurus)
- Steppe lemming (L. lagurus)
What Does A Lemming Look Like?
Lemmings are small, furry animals with short tails and long whiskers. They have small ears and eyes and blunt faces. Their hair is long and thick, providing insulation against the Arctic cold.
Lemming species vary in size. Smaller species such as the Wood Lemming and Steppe Lemming grow to around 12 cm (4.7 in) in body length (not including tail), and weigh around 30 g (1 oz).
Steppe Lemmings are one of the smallest lemming species.
Larger species such as the Norway Lemming grow to around 15 cm (6in.) in body length and weigh around 130 g (4.6 oz).
Lemmings have short tails, which don’t exceed 2 cm (0.8 in) in length.
Lemmings vary in colour. Depending on the species they can be grey, brown, yellow-brown or black. Lemmings are fairly conspicuous animals and their relatively bright coats may serve as a warning that they will defend themselves aggressively against predators (see the video below).
Collared Lemmings’ coats change colour seasonally. In the summer months their coats are grey with a darker strip running along the back. In the winter, their coats become white. Only Collared Lemmings’ coats undergo a seasonal colour change.
The Norway Lemming (also known as ‘Norwegian Lemming’) is perhaps the most recognisable lemming species. It has golden-brown fur with darker patches.
In the video below, you can see that a Norway Lemming is no pushover for a predator. It will defend itself against a much larger animal (in this case a cat!)
Where do Lemmings Live?
Lemmings are found in Arctic and subarctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia. Countries in which lemmings live include the USA (Alaska and some northern states), Canada, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, China and Russia.
Most lemmings live in tundra: cold, treeless lands in which the soil is permanently frozen. Lemmings are also found in northern forests (taiga) and grasslands (steppes).
During the winter lemmings live in tunnels and grass nests under the snow. Here it is warmer and more secure from predators.
In the summer, lemmings move along ‘runways’ through the vegetation and dig underground burrows.
Lemming Facts: Diet
Lemmings are herbivores (plant eaters) and aren’t too choosy about what they eat. Their diet includes leaves, shoots, roots, bulbs and mosses. Lemmings have been known to cache grasses and sedges in underground food stores.
Like all rodents, lemmings have front teeth (incisors) that grow continuously throughout the animal’s lifetime. This allows them to eat a diet of tough plants without their teeth wearing down.
Most lemmings are solitary animals, only coming together to mate. Some species live in small groups. Lemmings are active during both the day and the night.
Despite being ‘subniveal’ (living under the snow) in the winter, lemmings do not hibernate.
Lemming Population Booms
Lemming populations undergo extreme variations in size. Some years they approach extinction levels, whereas in others there are too many lemmings for an area to support. In these ‘boom years’, large numbers of lemmings disperse in search of food and shelter.
Lemming population booms occur after several favourable years, during which food is readily available, weather conditions are good and predation is low.
Lemmings are able to reproduce less than a month after being born. After a gestation period (the time it takes baby animals to grow inside the mother) of 3 to 4 weeks, lemmings give birth to up to 13 young (depending on the species).
Do Lemmings Really Jump Off Cliffs?
Because of their ability to breed extremely quickly when conditions are right, huge numbers of lemmings can suddenly appear at the same time. The lemmings disperse in every direction in order to find suitable territory for themselves.
However, natural obstacles, such as rivers, rocks or cliffs, can get in the way. The sheer numbers of lemmings frantically trying to get away may mean that some of them end up being pushed into the water (or even over a cliff edge).
Lemmings can swim, and large groups of lemmings attempting to cross water may have given rise to the ‘suicidal’ lemming myth.
Lemming population booms occur roughly every 3 – 5 years.
Are Lemmings Endangered?
All of the lemming species that are categorised in the IUCN Red List are rated ‘Least Concern’.
Lemmings have a large number of predators. From Snowy Owls to Wolverines, a lemming offers a handy protein snack!
Lemmings are important animals in their ecosystems. During years in which the lemming population is very low, Arctic Foxes have fewer young.
Quick Lemming Facts For Kids
- There are around 20 species of lemming.
- Lemmings live in Arctic and subarctic regions.
- Countries in which lemmings are found include: the USA (Alaska and some northern states), Canada, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, China and Russia.
- Lemming habitat includes tundra, boreal forest and steppe.
- Lemmings spend most of their lives alone, only coming together to mate.
- Lemmings are herbivores, and have a varies diet that includes grasses, sedges, berries, shoots and leaves.
- Lemming predators include Snowy Owls, Gulls, Arctic Foxes, and even Polar Bears.
- Many species of lemming spend their winters in tunnels and nests under the snow.
- Lemmings don’t hibernate.
- Collared Lemmings turn white in the winter, and have front claws that grow longer in the winter.
- Lemmings sometimes have population booms. Large numbers of lemmings have to migrate from one area in order to find food. These migrations can sometimes come to natural obstructions such as rivers. This may have given rise to the ‘suicidal lemming’ myth.
Lemming Facts: Conclusion
We hope that you have enjoyed learning about lemmings. You can find out about more Arctic animals here: Arctic Animals.
You can learn more about the Arctic here: Arctic Facts.