May 23, 2024

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Studying Small Mammals in the Arctic

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The Arctic terrestrial biome is home to some 67 species of mammals. We are familiar with the larger species, such as caribou, polar bear and Arctic fox. But our knowledge of small mammals is rather limited, despite the fact that they are at the base of the terrestrial food chain and represent, in terms of gross weight, a biomass as large as all the caribou herds that roam the Arctic lands. 

Micromammals are small mammals that are grouped in this category because of their small size. In the wild, little is known about their behaviour, except for a few species that are easier to observe, such as squirrels, rats and hares. 

Dominique Fauteux: 

We’re here today in Salluit to carry out wildlife monitoring, particularly for small mammals, for our interannual monitoring to find out the state of populations. To know if they’re growing or declining, we use live trapping and capture/mark/recapture techniques. 


Dominique and his team will establish a trapping perimeter of 7 to 12 hectares within this area. There will be 96 to 144 traps placed 30 metres apart. This will enable Dominique to establish population-density parameters. 

Gregory Rand: 

Small mammals are really at the base of the food chain here. Therefore, the presence or absence of small mammals can have a truly impressive impact on surrounding ecosystems—on all the predators that depend on them: Snowy Owls, Arctic foxes, red foxes and buzzards. So a year without lemmings can have absolutely no impact in the surrounding area. But with the other small mammals, if there are a lot of them, we’ll end up with a biodiversity boom in the surrounding area. 


The team uses a capture, mark and recapture technique that involves catching an animal, assigning it a numerical tracking number using a microchip, and tracking it. The microchip—only a few millimetres in size—is inserted into the accumulation of skin behind the animal’s neck using a syringe. The procedure is not dangerous for the animal’s health and will enable the team to generate crucial information. 


Each specimen is identified taxonomically and sexually. Their weight and general state of health is also noted. We have one male in good reproductive condition. To date, three rodent species have been identified: the field vole, the boreal lemming vole and the Ungava lemming. 

David Bolduc: 

My name is David Bolduc. I’m a Ph.D. student and I’m very interested in the population dynamics of small mammals in the Arctic. 

The reason I’m here is that we’re deploying an alternative population-monitoring system. Traditional methods rely heavily on live trapping, which gives us a precise idea of what’s going on at any given time during the summer. But the method that we’re deploying today will enable us to monitor all year round. It’s a little less precise, but on a longer time scale.  

But what’s really interesting here is the biodiversity, which is quite large. I’m going to focus on the relationship between small mustelids—ermines and weasels—and the small mammals found here in Salluit. Small mustelids are predators that specialize in small mammals. We’re thinking of ermines or weasels, which will eat a lot of voles or lemmings, for example. 

With the cameras that we’re installing, we’re hoping to see what happens during the winter. How will small-mammal populations be influenced by their predators, like ermines and weasels? We’re very excited to come back next year to open the boxes that will have been taking pictures all year long. 

Then it will give us a first insight into what happens with micromammals during winter, when they are very difficult to study. 


The last studies on small mammals in Northern Quebec date back more than 60 years. With climate change, it is important to draw up a contemporary portrait of the state of these small-mammal populations. 

Dominique Fauteux: 

We had heard that Snowy Owls nested here about every four years, but we didn’t really have any information on lemmings per se—on the cycles of micromammals in the area. So we started trapping here in 2018. Then we realized over time that this was a tundra that was fairly unknown. 

It’s a job that has revealed many, many interesting new species that we didn’t necessarily know were here. Wow, it’s a shrew! Incredible. The most northerly shrews are easily 400 to 500 kilometres south from here—at least, the recognized ones—whereas the shrews here have never, ever, ever, ever been collected. 

Or, at least, we have no idea what this species is. So it’s really an extraordinary discovery that we’ve got this morning. Wow! Incredible! 

Gregory Rand: 

It’s really essential to have good relations with the community. Their knowledge is really indispensable. [Inaudible]. Without them, it would be really difficult, if not impossible, to get to remote places like here at the Foucault River. 

Dominique Fauteux: 

So, by being here in the heart of the habitat that we’re studying, we see everything at once. And this information, combined with all the elements of the tundra environment, the animals… you get a much better understanding of how the land works, and that’s really my favourite part of the job. 


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