Land Mammals

Arctic Lemming Discrostonyx torguatus Kilangmiutak

      image courtesy of:

       image courtesy of:


      image courtesy of:  

The Arctic lemming is Greenland's only small rodent.

They have blackish grey heads and backs in the summer. Around their neck they have a rust-red area, almost looking like a collar. In the winter they have a white coat. The Arctic lemming has long, soft fur, and very short tails. The Arctic lemming weighs around 1.1 to 4.0 oz (30-112 g) and is about 2.8 to 5.9 in (7 to15 cm) long.  

The Arctic lemming, being herbivorous, lives on a diet of various plants. They dig tunnels in the ground during summer and they live in burrows in the snow during the winter.

The Arctic lemming is a highly important food source for numerous species including: stoat, arctic fox, snowy owl, gyrfalcon, glaucous gull, long-tailed skua and raven. In good lemming years these natural enemies produce large litters of young. The Arctic lemming is a solitary animal by nature. They only meet to mate and then go their separate ways, but like all rodents they have a high reproductive rate and can breed rapidly when food is plentiful. In exceptional years, females produce a litter of young every month from March to April through to September. Because young females are already procreative at four weeks, populations can grow at enormous speed. Typically, these large populations collapse very rapidly and hardly any lemmings are seen in following years. Like other small arctic rodents, the Arctic lemming population fluctuates wildly, usually in a 4-year cycle.These rodents do not hibernate during the long harsh northern winter. Instead, they remain active in finding food by digging through the snow and using the grass that they have previously stored.

The Kalaalit do not eat lemmings and they do not make use of their small skins. The Kalaalit gave the Arctic lemming its name 'kilangmiutak' because it means 'one-who-comes-from-the-sky.' The legend of the Arctic lemming falling from the sky is common to Kalaalit. This legend probably occurred because of the sudden appearance of lemmings after the snow melts which follows an intensive reproduction winter. The shamans sometimes used the Arctic lemming as a source of supernatural powers.

A fun fact about the Arctic lemming is that they have been known to migrate when population density becomes too great. They can and do swim in search of a new habitat and will cross a large body of water to do so.

Source courtesy of: The Nature and Wildlife Guide to Greenland, Benny Gensbøl (2005) and