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Steppe Lemming
Fossil range: Late Pliocene to Recent
Steppe Lemming, Lagurus lagurus
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Superfamily: Muroidea
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Arvicolinae
Genus: Lagurus
Gloger, 1841
Species: L. lagurus
Binomial name
Lagurus lagurus
(Pallara, 1773)
Lagurus is also a plant genus in the family Poaceae

The Steppe Lemming, or Lagurus lagurus, is a light grey, small, plump rodent that is like a lemming, but is not in the genus Lemmus, unlike the Norway Lemming (Lemmus lemmus). The Steppe Lemming is actually a vole (genus arvicola); its closest North American relation is the Sagebrush Vole. It is 87 to 140 mm long and 25 to 35g.
This lemming eats shoots and leaves and is more active at night, however is not strictly nocturnal. In the wild it is found in Russia and Ukraine in steppes and semi-arid environments. Fossil remains of this species have been found in areas as far as Great Britain.


Steppe Lemmings as pets

It is the most common domestic vole, being particularly well-known in Europe. (In the US and Canada it is still considered an exotic animal.)

In captivity they can live from 2 to 2.5 years, however they are usually mistreated with small cages (a 10-gallon tank is best for a colony) and improper diets. Although the Steppe Lemming is social by nature and should not be held in captivity alone, if a colony of Steppe Lemmings is held together for a long period of time (2 or 3 months) they may become hostile to each other (mainly to the subordinate members of the colony). If there is only one, separate nesting area, two entrances or exits should be placed, due to the attack style of the more impetuous lemmings. They also tend to be very territorial animals, so it is best that there be a low male population in captivity. Overall it is best to keep between 3 to 8 Steppe Lemmings in one cage or aquarium with no more than 1 male for every 2 or 3 females.

It is important not to feed them standard rodent chow containing bits of dried fruit. As their natural diet does not contain much sugar, steppe lemmings are somewhat diabetic and become sick or even die from overdosing on sugar. A sugar-free, non-molassed chow that does not contain dried fruit and little sunflower and other oily seeds should be used; laboratory rodent chows may be a cheap alternative. Additionally, steppe lemmings need grass and other leafy greens such as alfalfa to thrive.

Grass gathered outdoors may harbor parasites and toxins and should not be used unless gathered from meadows that are away from habitated areas, roads and not frequented by dogs or used for grazing. No matter where any grass or moss has been obtained, and even if it is only inteded for bedding, it should be kept in a freezer for three days to eliminate parasites like lice and mites.

Clean water should be always available; the amount actually drunk varies with the food consumed. Willow twigs need to be provided for abrading the continuously-growing teeth. Lemmings can drink form a shallow dish, but since they typically track their bedding into the water it is generally best to use a bottle with a ball valve.

Lemmings enjoy any kind of running or climbing; however, as their habitat is essentially flat and rather featureless terrain, they have a poor sense of height and danger, so their encolusres should not be high enough to allow them to fall more than 10 or 15cm and should, of course, be lined with wood chips and hay. An exercise wheel is the best way to keep the animals busy and trim, and if the wheels affords enough space, they will often race in it together. (However, fights can often develop around wheels - with males, particularly, it is helpful to have several wheels, perhaps even one for each lemming.)



Motives for fighting

In general Steppe Lemmings are friendly animals and prefer to live in colonies. Even small groups of males (preferably from the same litter) can live quite peacefully. However, males do tend to be territorial and a mature alpha-male will nearly always attack a stranger and will often mistreat other members of his own litter, particularly if the nest is over-crowded. A large, well filled terrarium (about 5-10cm woodchips covered by about 10cm hay) can allow a group to live far more peacefully; altercations should be expected in smaller spaces with little bedding.

Fights (as well as unintentional accidents) can also occur in and around exercise wheels.

Once a male has become aggressive - even with an outsider - he should be considered dangerous, watched very closely and - if possible - be neutered and placed with a group of females. Although neutering a lemming is a difficult operation typically attempted only by veterinary hospitals, it is possible. A neutered alpha male will generally not become less aggressive toward other males.

Fights, Wounds and Necessary Measures

The aggressor will try to trap the defending lemming in a corner and then attack with his teeth and short claws. Excited chirps, chattering and running typically accompany a fight - in most cases, the whole colony will be disturbed. (While activity of this kind is amusing for new owners it should be observed very carefully, since peaceful lemming colonies are much quieter than ones characterized by aggressive behavior.)

Since lemmings like to nest in small, narrow enclosures (like boxes the size of a fist) it is important that the enclosure have a second exit so that the defender can escape into another part of the terrarium. Lemming fights sometimes leave no exterior signs of violence but nevertheless cause fatal internal bleeding. More often, fights result in lacerations, often around the hind legs, bottom and genitals.

Lemmings that have been hurt in a fight should be placed in separate terraria or cages from the aggressor as soon as possible. Also, their natural tendency to scratch and lick at wounds can slow healing. A veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and infection retardants to help an injured lemming, generally at reasonable costs. While it can be very difficult to convince an injured lemming to drink its medicated drops or eat food laced with medicine, a good trick is to place drops of medicine on the lemming's nose. Through licking itself clean, the lemming will ingest the medicine.

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