Norwegian Lemmings Attack with Screams and Bright Colors to Ward Off Predators

First Posted: Feb 06, 2015 08:36 AM EST

You don't want to mess with a lemming. Scientists have found that these northern rodents employ some interesting tactics when it comes to evading predators. It turns out that lemmings act aggressively in order to ward off danger.

The Norweigian lemming can be found in northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola peninsula in Russia. With its striking red-brown back, yellow flanks and white breast, it certainly stands out in its environment. Most smaller rodents don't act aggressively to protect themselves from predators. However, Norwegian lemmings are the exception. They employ loud screams, lunges and bites to keep themselves safe.

In this case, the researchers examined the Norwegian lemming a bit more closely, noting its aggressive behavior. In one experiment, the researchers found that lemmings were far easier to spot in their natural habitat than their main rodent neighbor, the grey-sided vole. In another test, the researchers found that brown lemmings only gave anti-predatory warning calls when a human was near in one out of 39 instances; in contrast, Norwegian lemmings called out in 36 out of 110 cases.

"The Norwegian lemming combines acoustics with visual conspicuousness, probably to reduce its risk of becoming prey," said Malte Andersson, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In this case, it seems that the Norwegian lemming is employing something called aposematism. Aposematism is the use of warning colors and other methods to signal to predators that the potential prey has some form of defense; usually, this trait is seen in poisonous insects, snakes and frogs rather than in herbivorous mammals.

The findings reveal that this remarkable creature has developed a unique way to ward off predators-by fighting back.

The findings are published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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