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Norway Lemming Fact File

Lemmus lemmus

Weight

20-130g

(0.7-4.6oz)

Length

13.5cm

(5.25in)

Lifespan

Average 1-2 years

Record 3.3 years

Diet

Herbivore

Moss, Lichen, Grass

Conservation Status

IUCN

Least Concern

Norway lemmings are known for their boom and bust population cycles. Every few years they will breed to such abundance that they eat all of the food in their habitat and must migrate to another area. On these large migrations a number of them pass way due to environmental factors and predation.

A habit of predators to kill lemmings and leave them scattered around without eating them gave rise to a myth that lemmings would explode.

They feed on a range of lichens, mosses and grasses. Norway lemmings will seek shelter in a burrow which is tunneled in to snow. To assist this one of their toes is enlarged and flattened to help dig.

Learn more about these marvellous mammals by reading on below.

Appearance

Their body is colored brown and black with gold streaks running across it. On the underside they are lighter than the rest of their fur.

At the end of their body is a short stumpy tail. The body is thick with a coat that helps to keep in body heat.

Their legs are short and tucked under the body. On each paw their first digit is enlarged and flattened helping them to tunnel in the snow. Each toe ends with a long claw.

Adult Norway lemmings reach a maximum length of 13.5cm (5.25in) long. An average adult will weigh between 20 and 130g (0.7-4.6oz).

Diet


Norway lemmings are herbivores. Their diet includes mosses, lichen and grasses.

Norway Lemming

Range

Europe is the native home of the Norway lemming. Here they can be found through Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Their range is highly variable owing to the large migrations which these animals undertake annually.

Habitat

Norway lemmings make their home in alpine and subarctic habitats such as peat bogs, shrub heath and slopes or ridges.

In summer they show a preference for moist habitat but in winter they must find other habitats as these areas will freeze.

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Reproduction

Breeding can occur year round. Females can breed once again within a month of giving birth. As many as 8 litters may be reared each year.

Between 5 and 13 young are born after a 2 to 3 week gestation period. They are able to produce multiple broods each year.

During a good year the Norway lemming will produce so many young that it can lead to food shortages in an area. This tends to occur once every 3-4 years.

This will cause them to undertake mass migrations to colonize new areas with more moving from the mountains down to the valleys.

Sexual maturity is reached within four weeks of being born.

Behavior

After a large breeding season the Norway lemming will undertake mass migrations before the winter sets in. During this period lemmings have become well known due to what appears to be a mass suicide event. This is caused by a number of unfortunate combinations mainly the animals winding up in unusual habitats due to their movements. Large numbers die as they try to cross rivers and lakes.

Periods of activity occur both at day and night. They tend to be active for six hours each day. In the northern parts of their range they may be exposed to days with 24 hours of daylight during summer.

When food is scarce the males will engage in bouts of boxing and wrestling.

They burrow in to hardpacked snow during winter. When this melts in the spring they must move either to higher ground or lower ground where they spend summer.

Outside of the breeding season these animals spend much of their time alone.

Norway Lemming

Predators and Threats

Natural predators of the Norway lemming include Arctic foxes, red foxes and the ermine along with birds of prey such as snowy owls and common ravens.

Their main way to avoid predation is to hide in their burrow.

In Sweden these lemmings are affected by reindeers grazing in parts of their habitat.

Climate change is thought to be a developing threat to this species going forward. A recent increase in length of time between population peaks has been attributed to climate change.

Quick facts

A common myth suggests that Norway lemmings are prone to exploding. This comes from the habit of predators moving through fields with a number of lemmings in them and killing them all. They may not eat the whole lemming leaving a body which looks like its exploded.

Norway Lemming

Photo Credits

Top

kgleditsch, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle One

Public Domain

Middle Two

Lakkahillo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom

johsgrd, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

References

Verhoef-Verhallen, E., 2006. The complete encyclopedia of wild animals. Netherlands: Rebo International.

Woodward, J. and Bryan, K., 2016. DK knowledge encyclopedia Animal!. London: Dorling Kindersley

Henttonen, H. 2016. Lemmus lemmus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T11481A503146. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T11481A503146.en. Downloaded on 06 June 2021.

CRITTERFACTS. 2021. Norway Lemming Facts | CRITTERFACTS. [online] Available at: <https://critterfacts.com/norwaylemming/> [Accessed 6 June 2021].

Borealforest.org. 2021. Boreal Forests of the World Mammal Species – Norway Lemming. [online] Available at: <https://www.borealforest.org/world/mammals/norway_lemming.htm> [Accessed 6 June 2021].

Nicholls, H., 2014. The truth about Norwegian lemmings. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: <http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141122-the-truth-about-lemmings> [Accessed 6 June 2021].

Stubblefield, A. 2014. "Lemmus lemmus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed June 06, 2021 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Lemmus_lemmus/

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