Do you remember the first time you saw a photo of the paths caribou make in the Arctic tundra? There are so many trails that you wonder if they ever stopped to eat anything. As far as I know, they eat “on the run,” at least until they reach wintering grounds or calving grounds.
Once I saw a mountain caribou standing in Les Ellis’s field eating from a round bale of hay left in the field over winter, but I’ve never even seen a barren ground caribou. The two times I travelled to Inuvik there were no caribou passing nearby. But I’ve seen this (Photo 1): This photo shows paths made by grazing herbivores with grazing areas as well as “roads.” The second photo shows another picture of paths made by another type of grazing animal.
Photo 1 was not taken by an airplane or drone. It was taken by my own small camera from a height of about five feet. The best description of the ecosystem niche in the photos is probably “Lawn.” The herbivores? Voles. Photo 2 shows barren ground caribou trails in the Arctic.
Photo 1 shows a microcosm of Photo 2. I’m not sure that microcosm is the right word. Microcosm means “a representation of something on a much smaller scale.” Perhaps, technically speaking, the small patch of lawn is a microcosm of the 20-acre hayfield after the voles have munched on the grass, clover and alfalfa all winter. Right now I’m just thinking of the image of that small piece of lawn. Through seeing those trails with some small knowledge and more imagination, I “see” tundra marked by thousands and thousands of much larger animals over a longer period of time than just one winter. No caribou, but I have voles.
Voles look like little muskrats (to which they are closely related) but with shorter, rounded tails. They stand in an important place as an herbivore in food webs in nearly every biome. Voles are as important to top predators like red-tailed hawks, foxes, weasels and mink as caribou are to wolves. My dog, Rufus, is a “top predator” and munches on a few moles every day from our yard, fields and haybarn. Maybe I could start a business called Rent-a-Rufus. Or make a movie called Never Cry Rufus?
In places that grow grass seed for sale, voles may damage as much as 50 percent of the crop; the farmers hate the voles and sometimes poison them. Instead of poisons, perhaps farmers could do everything they can to encourage predators.
How are voles different from mice? They look a little chunkier and are usually about as long as a ten-year-old’s handspan. They have less prominent whiskers than mice (Reepicheep’s vanity about his mustache shows he was definitely not a vole) and – because of their more rounded shape, their tails may appear shorter – but are still half their body length.
Like many rodents, voles have the gift of rapid reproduction. The young may be born any month of the year, sometimes even in snug burrows underneath the snow. The females are pregnant for only 20-23 days and the young are weaned in 12-14 days. When at a peak in their population cycle, there may be more than 400 on an area the size of a soccer field. Unfortunately – if you are a vole – voles often only live one year.
Perhaps I’ll see some caribou when I visit our daughter, Elisabeth, in Iqaluit next summer. But probably not. (“An aerial survey in 2012 – the first ever of its scale – found only about 5,000 caribou on Baffin Island, a decrease of up to 95 percent of population estimates in the 1990s,” according to a 2014 CBC report.)
I will, however, see voles or the results of their activities no matter where I live. Voles (sometimes called “meadow mice”) of one species or another live just about everywhere in Canada. If I visited mainland Nunavut, I may see Microtus pennsylvanicus but not in Iqaluit or on the other islands. The Inuk word is . Or I could find one in Ontario where they are known as . . . well, meadow mice. Or in Quebec, where they are known as campagnols.
Caribou? Maybe I’ll never experience their migration or the effects of their travels first-hand. Like many of us, I am unable to travel to experience everything that I’d like to see. I have BBC Planet Earth, The Nature of Things and endless Youtube clips. None of them is worth much, however, without imagination.
That’s where Wind in the Willows may help. “Ratty” is actually a water vole, not a rat at all. But that shouldn’t stop you from imagining that the vole you see living on your local riverside or swimming along at the edge of a pond or ditch in your town, city park or riverside is waiting to take you to an adventure to the Wild Wood or to see Toad (poop poop) or back to Home Sweet Home.
Meanwhile, be happy if you see evidence of this common rodent’s residence nearby. The vole’s calling card may be your ticket to understanding a caribou tundra path like the one here. The God who so loved the cosmos, no doubt loves the micro-cosmos, too.