Reproductive behaviour of female Siberian lemmings during the increase and peak phase of the lemming cycle
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The reproduction of female Siberian lemmings in the increase and peak phases of the lemming cycle was investigated in connection with a ship-borne expedition along the Siberian arctic tundra. The cycle phase of each studied lemming population was determined using demographic analyses, i.e. current density indices (captured lemmings per 100 traps per 24 h), information on previous density (frequency of old lemming faeces and runways), and information from dendrochronological analyses revealing the most recent winters with a high intensity of willow-stem scarring caused by lemmings. The cycle phase determination was corroborated with data on the age profiles of the populations. The reproductive behaviour of female lemmings differed markedly in relation to cycle phase. In increase-phase populations, all captured females (including young and winter born) were reproducing (had embryos or were lactating), and females started to reproduce early in life, i.e. when <2 months old. By contrast, in peak-phase populations, only 6% of the young females and 63% of the winter-born ones were reproducing, and females did not start to reproduce until they were 5-6 months old. The average number of embryos per reproducing female was significantly higher in increase-phase populations than in peak-phase ones. It is concluded that the rapid population growth in lemmings during the increase phase can largely be explained by the early (young age) reproductive start and, consequently, the shorter generation time, the high proportion of females taking part in reproduction, and the large litters produced. Similarly, a delay in the start of reproduction, a lower proportion of reproducing females, and smaller litter sizes produced by peak-phase lemming populations can contribute substantially to the deceleration in the population increase and possibly lead to a decline.