Lemmings are small rodents related to muskrats. They live in very cold regions of the world and are an easy target for birds and other predators due to their small size. Because of this, they typically live only a couple of years. Lemmings belong to the subfamily Arvicolinae and to the same superfamily, called Muroidea, as mice, rats, gerbils, and hamsters.
Lemmings are very small, measuring only 3 to 6 inches on average. The smallest is the wood lemming, while the largest is called the Norwegian lemming. Their coats come in different colors, depending on species, but most are brown or gray. Some turn white during winter. Lemmings have thick, coarse fur that enables them to endure the long, cold winter in their natural habitat. Their bodies are stout, their limbs are short, and their tail and ears are tiny to help them conserve heat. Lemmings have long claws on their forefeet and sharp teeth for gnawing roots.
As herbivores, lemmings survive on vegetation, including grasses, berries, bark, sedges, leaves, lichen and roots. During the coldest winter months, the only food available may be shoots and bulbs under the ground. Because these food items aren't very nutritious, lemmings eat a great quantity of them to help prevent nutritional deficiencies. In fact, they may spend six or more hours every day searching for and eating food.
Habitat and Distribution
Lemmings are found in or near the Arctic tundra, which includes northern Canada, Alaska, Europe and Asia. They are also sometimes found in the Taiga, which is an extremely cold northern zone of coniferous forests where temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Lemmings live in colonies and dig burrows in the snow. Living beneath the snow functions to keep them safe from predators. It also keep them warm, as underground temperatures are typically higher than air temperatures. When the colony becomes too crowded due to overpopulation, individual lemmings will relocate in search of food and a less populated habitat.
Even though they spend part of their time in colonies with others of their kind, lemmings are solitary animals. They come together only to mate. They are also quite aggressive toward predators, which can sometimes get them into serious trouble. Mother lemmings feed and care for their young until they are old, big, and strong enough to care for themselves. Gestation only lasts about three weeks, and newborns are small and weak.
Contrary to what many people believe, lemmings are not prone to committing mass suicide by running over cliffs. This myth started with a Disney movie called "White Wilderness," but there's absolutely no truth to it at all.
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Sandra Ketcham has nearly two decades of experience writing and editing for major websites and magazines. Her work appears in numerous web and print publications, including "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "The Tampa Bay Times," Visit Florida, "USA Today," AOL's Gadling and "Kraze Magazine."