Updated 2004-03-14

The lemming cycle and the predator-prey interactions: Rodent cycles have been studied for decades and empiricists and theoreticians to explain them have proposed several hypotheses. The predation hypothesis has gained attention during the last 20 years but to date, no study could test it with information collected over several cycles and covering all predator species. The high-Arctic Tundra biome, in NE Greenland, holds the world's simplest terrestrial vertebrate predator-prey community, with only one rodent species (the collared lemming: CL), as the main prey for four predators (snowy owl, long-tailed skua, Arctic fox and stoat). In this region, the CL population is cyclic with a = 4-year long period and a >100-fold amplitude between peak and low phases. The functional and numerical responses of the predators lead to very high predation rates in summer with more than 2% of the CL population being predated per day during the peak and decline phases. These predation rates, much higher (or similar during low phases) than the CL maximum growth rate (˜ 1%), are sufficient to explain why this rodent population systematically faces a decline during summer. During winter, only the stoat actively continues to prey upon the CL under the snow. Contrary to other predator species, the stoat has a delayed numerical response, which contributes to destabilize the system through inversely density-dependent predation rates. The impact of predators and especially the predominant role played by the stoat in causing the cycles was also tested with a parameterized model. The predictions of this model, in line with the empirical observations, support the predation hypothesis for our study area. This model also provides new possibilities to assess the impact of climate change on an entire community or of some specific behavior of the predators like their preferences for some age classes.

Time frame

Project time span
1998 - 2006
Data collection
1998 -
Data processing
1998 -
Data reporting
1998 -

Contact information

Contact person
Olivier GILG
GREA (Arctic Ecology Research Group) Route de Vernot F-21440 Francheville France
+33 3 80 35 07 26
+33 3 80 35 09 23
Other project contacts
Dr Pierre DELATTRE Centre de Biologie et de Gestion des Populations (CGBP) UMR INRA/IRD/CIRAD/ENSAM Campus de Baillarguet CS 30016 F-34988 Montferrier/Lez Cedex France

Parameters and Media

Parameter groups measured/observed/modelled
Biological effects
Climate change effects
Media sampled/studied/modelled
Terrestrial birds
Terrestrial mammals
Additional information or further specification of types of data / information collected, species / tissues / organs sampled, etc.

Species studied: Collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) and its four main predators in NE Greenland > Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius longicaudus), Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca), Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) and Stoat (Mustela erminea) For the four predators: Diet Functional responses to lemming densities Numerical responses to lemming densities


Regions studied
Arctic, Circumpolar
Other areas
Northeast Greenland National Park
Stations or areas where observations are made

72°30' N / 24° W

Data availability

References to key publications (or planned publications) and data reports
Gilg, O.; Hanski, I., and Sittler, B. Cyclic dynamics in a simple vertebrate predator-prey community. Science. 2003; 302:866-868. Gilg, O. The summer decline of the collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) in high arctic Greenland. Oikos. 2002; 99(3):499-510. Sittler, B.; Gilg, O., and Berg, T. B. Low abundance of King eider nests during low lemming years in Northeast Greenland. Arctic. 2000; 53(1):53-60. Gilg, O.; Sané, R.; Solovieva, D. V.; Pozdnyakov, V. I.; Sabard, B.; Tsanos, D.; Zöckler, C.; Lappo, E. G.; Syroechkovski, E. E., and Eichhorn, G. Birds and mammals of the Lena Delta Nature Reserve, Siberia. Arctic. 2000; 53(2):118-133. Gilg, O.; Hurstel, A., and Sittler, B. Impact des prédateurs aviens sur la démographie de leur proie: les enseignements d'un système simplifié du Haut-Arctique (talk presented at the 27th French-speaking Ornithological Congress 28-29 September 2002 Strasbourg). Alauda. 2003; 71(2):274-275. Sittler, B. and Gilg, O. Responses of Snowy Owls to lemming fluctuations Insights from a long-term study in high arctic Greenland. Book of abstract. International Symposium: Ecology and Conservation of European Owls. 23-26 October 2003. Dornbirn (Austria); 2003. Sittler, B. and Gilg, O. Lemming cycles in high arctic Greenland: patterns and issues emerging from an ongoing long-term study. In. 21. Internationale Polartagung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Polarforschung. 17.-22. März 2003 Kiel. Kiel: Alfred Wegener Institut; 2003; p. 51. Gilg, O. and Hurstel, A. Prey selection by birds of prey on a lemming population in Northeast Greenland. In: Berg, T. B.; Nymand, J., and Rosing-Asvid, A, Eds. 8th Arctic Biological Forum 2000: Book of abstract. Copenhagen: Zoological Institute Copenhagen; 2000; p. 16. Gilg, O.; Sané, R.; Sittler, B., and Sabard, B. Geographical and multi-annual changes in food habits of Arctic raptors. In: Helb, H.-W.; Peter, H.-U.; Göpfert, D., and Klaus, S., Eds. Tagungsband zur 131. Jahresversammlung der Deutschen Ornithologen-Gesellschaft 7-12 October 1998 Jena. Jena: Deutschen Ornithologen-Gesellschaft; 1998; p. 49. 163. Gilg, O.; Sabard, B., and Sittler, B. Numerical and functional response of gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) to lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) fluctuations in NE Greenland. In: Berg, T. B.; Forchhammer, M. C., and Skytte, E., Eds. Arktisk Biologisk Forskermode VI. Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center; 1997; pp. 5-6.
Samples/specimens archived in specimen banks?

Methods & Procedures

Not specified

Additional Information

Is this a bi- AND multi-lateral project (i.e. a project involving cooperation between different countries)?
Other institutes involved in the project

Dept of Ecology and Systematics, Uni. Helsinki (FIN) - Prof. Ilkka HANSKI Institut für Landespflege, Uni. Freiburg (D) - Dr Benoît SITTLER

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