The insulative value of early and deep winter snow is thought to enhance winter reproduction and survival by arctic lemmings (Lemmus and Dicrostonyx spp). This leads to the general hypothesis that landscapes with persistently low lemming population densities, or low amplitude population fluctuations, have a low proportion of the land base with deep snow. We experimentally tested a component of this hypothesis, that snow depth influences habitat choice, at three Canadian Arctic sites: Bylot Island, Nunavut; Herschel Island, Yukon; Komakuk Beach, Yukon. We used snow fencing to enhance snow depth on 9-ha tundra habitats, and measured the intensity of winter use of these and control areas by counting rodent winter nests in spring. At all three sites, the density of winter nests increased in treated areas compared to control areas after the treatment, and remained higher on treated areas during the treatment. The treatment was relaxed at one site, and winter nest density returned to pre-treatment levels. The rodents' proportional use of treated areas compared to adjacent control areas increased and remained higher during the treatment. At two of three sites, lemmings and voles showed significant attraction to the areas of deepest snow accumulation closest to the fences. The strength of the treatment effect appeared to depend on how quickly the ground level temperature regime became stable in autumn, coincident with snow depths near the hiemal threshold. Our results provide strong support for the hypothesis that snow depth is a primary determinant of winter habitat choice by tundra lemmings and voles.
Reid, D., Bilodeau, F., KREBS, C., Gauthier, G., Kenney, A., Gilbert, S., ... Hofer, E. (2012). Lemming winter habitat choice: a snow-fencing experiment. Oecologia, 168(4), 935-946. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2167-x