Are lemmings prey or predators?
P. Turchin, L. Oksanen, P. Ekerholm, T. Oksanen, H. Henttonen
Large oscillations in the populations of Norwegian lemmings have mystified both professional ecologists and lay public1,2,3. Ecologists suspect that these oscillations are driven by a trophic mechanism4,5: either an interaction between lemmings and their food supply, or an interaction between lemmings and their predators. If lemming cycles are indeed driven by a trophic interaction, can we tell whether lemmings act as the resource (‘prey’) or the consumer (‘predator’)? In trophic interaction models, peaks of resource density generally have a blunt, rounded shape, whereas peaks of consumer density are sharp and angular. Here we have applied several statistical tests to three lemming datasets and contrasted them with comparable data for cyclic voles. We find that vole peaks are blunt, consistent with their cycles being driven by the interaction with predators. In contrast, the shape of lemming peaks is consistent with the hypothesis that lemmings are functional predators, that is, their cycles are driven by their interaction with food plants. Our findings suggest that a single mechanism, such as interaction between rodents and predators, is unlikely to provide the ‘universal’ explanation of all cyclic rodent dynamics.