, Volume 172, Issue 4, pp 1007-1016
Date: 12 Dec 2012

The effect of snow cover on lemming population cycles in the Canadian High Arctic

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Abstract

Rising temperatures and changes in the precipitation regime will have a strong impact on the quality of the snow cover in the Arctic. A snow cover of good quality protecting lemmings from cold temperatures and predators is thought to be an important factor for maintaining the cyclic dynamic of their populations in the tundra. We examined if the characteristics of annual fluctuations (amplitude and shape of phases) in brown lemming (Lemmus trimucronatus) density could be determined by snow depth, snow density, sub-nivean temperature and persistence of snow. Using an 18-year time series of brown lemming abundance on Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic, we tested if snow variables could explain the residual variation between the observed lemming density and the one predicted by models where cyclicity had been accounted for. Our analysis provides support for the hypothesis that snow cover can affect the amplitude and possibly also the periodicity of lemming population cycles in the High Arctic. Summer abundance of brown lemmings was higher following winters with a deep snow cover and a low-density snow pack near the ground but was unaffected by the date of establishment or melting and duration of the snow cover. Two snow variables showed a temporal trend; mean winter snow depth tended to increase and date of establishment of the hiemal threshold occurred earlier over time. These temporal trends, which should be favourable to lemmings, may explain why healthy population cycles have apparently been maintained at our study site contrary to other Arctic sites.

Communicated by Janne Sundell.