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Oecologia. 2011 Dec;167(4):967-80. doi: 10.1007/s00442-011-2045-6. Epub 2011 Jun 24.

Habitat selection, reproduction and predation of wintering lemmings in the Arctic.

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Département de Biologie, Centre d'Études Nordiques, Université Laval, Quebec, QC, Canada.


Snow cover has dramatic effects on the structure and functioning of Arctic ecosystems in winter. In the tundra, the subnivean space is the primary habitat of wintering small mammals and may be critical for their survival and reproduction. We have investigated the effects of snow cover and habitat features on the distributions of collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) and brown lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus) winter nests, as well as on their probabilities of reproduction and predation by stoats (Mustela erminea) and arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus). We sampled 193 lemming winter nests and measured habitat features at all of these nests and at random sites at two spatial scales. We also monitored overwinter ground temperature at a subsample of nest and random sites. Our results demonstrate that nests were primarily located in areas with high micro-topography heterogeneity, steep slopes, deep snow cover providing thermal protection (reduced daily temperature fluctuations) and a high abundance of mosses. The probability of reproduction increased in collared lemming nests at low elevation and in brown lemming nests with high availability of some graminoid species. The probability of predation by stoats was density dependent and was higher in nests used by collared lemmings. Snow cover did not affect the probability of predation of lemming nests by stoats, but deep snow cover limited predation attempts by arctic foxes. We conclude that snow cover plays a key role in the spatial structure of wintering lemming populations and potentially in their population dynamics in the Arctic.

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