Myodes rutilusnorthern red-backed vole

Geographic Range

Myodes rutilus is a Holarctic species first described from Siberia. It occurs in northern Europe, Asia, Alaska, and Canada. (Banfield, 1974; Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Nadler, et al., 1978; Rausch, 1953; Runck, 2001; "Clethrionomys rutilus", 1993; West, 1974; West, 1977)


Northern red-backed voles are found in a wide range of terrestrial habitats. They are commonly found in tundra, taiga, and shrub forests. Greatest population densities were recorded in overgrown talus slopes and in stands of dwarf willow, alder, and dwarf birch. (West, 1974; West, 1977; Youngman, 1975; Zuercher, et al., 1999)

  • Range elevation
    1800 (high) m
    5905.51 (high) ft

Physical Description

Northern red-backed voles are medium mouse-sized, reaching an average total length of 130 to 158 mm and usually weighing about 30 g. The tail is 30 to 40 mm long, hind foot is 18.5 to 21.0 mm long and ears are 10 to 14 mm long. Pelage is light gray with the dorsal surface exhibiting rusty-to-reddish color. Color intensity varies with season (darkest in winter), geographic distribution, and subspecies. The tail is dark gray dorsally, yellow ventrally, and densely covered with hair. Terminal hairs on the tail are often long and dark.

At least 10 subspecies have been described, but researchers differ on the species composition and subspecies validity. Juvenile pelage is similar to adults. There are 8 mammae. The dental formula is I1/1 C0/0 P0/0 M3/3 = 16. Basal metabolic rate is not reported, but average respiratory frequency in normoxic atmosphere is 120 breaths per minute. (Banfield, 1974; Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Gromov and Polyakov, 1992)

Myodes rutilus may sometimes be confused with Myodes gapperi along the southern boundary of the species range. The two species can be distinguished, however, because M. rutilus has brighter reddish coloration than does M. gapperi. Also, the tail of M. rutilus is shorter and thicker than that of M. gapperi. (Batzli, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    20 to 40 g
    0.70 to 1.41 oz
  • Range length
    130 to 158 mm
    5.12 to 6.22 in


Species-specific information on the mating system is not available for wild populations. However, captive colonies in laboratory settings were reported to be promiscuous. (Dietrich and Preston, 1977)

Northern red-backed voles breed from May until September, usually beginning breeding when the snow melts. They can be prolific, producing as many as 5 litters during this time. Postpartum estrus in females helps to increase the rate of reproduction. Winter breeding has been reported to be infrequent.

Pregnancy lasts from 17 to 19 days. Litters of M. rutilus range from 1 to 9, although litters are commonly of 6 to 8 young. The young develop rapidly, and are weaned by about 18 days of age. The young voles become independent at the time of weaning. Reproductive maturity is reached at a minimum age of 2 months. The percentage of sexually mature juveniles varies inversely with population density. (Batzli, 1999; Batzli, 1999; Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Gilbert and Krebs, 1991; Martell and Fuller, 1979)

  • Breeding interval
    Northern red-backed voles can breed up to 5 times in a year. Breeding mostly occurs in the warmer months. One study reported it takes a minimum of 20.5 days between litters.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season generally occurs May to September, but may be longer or shorter depending on climate and weather conditions. One study suggests that the onset of breeding season is related to timing of snow ablation.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 9
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    17 to 19 days
  • Average weaning age
    18 days
  • Average time to independence
    18 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 (low) months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 (low) months

Males participate in copulation only and do not take any part in parental care. Captive females are reported to enlarge and improve nests prior to giving birth by collecting and modifying soft materials. Both males and females occasionally cannibalize young. It is difficult to estimate average litter sizes and numbers of weaned offspring in the wild, because weaning periods are short and weaned offspring tend to migrate as soon as they leave the nest. As a result, population recruitment rates include immigration, which makes it difficult to estimate reproduction. Captive females that produced average litters of 4.9 offspring weaned only 3.6 young per litter. (Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Martell and Fuller, 1979)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female


Northern red-backed voles normally survive less than 2 years in the wild; however, average lifespan information varies among publications and is probably affected by locally and temporally varying factors, such as food availability, predation, population density, seasonal weather patterns, etc. Adult mortality is highest in winter and is directly proportional to weather severity. Based on published information, it is unclear whether mortality results mostly from predation, starvation, aging, or other causes. (Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Martell and Fuller, 1979; West, 1974; Zuercher, et al., 1999)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    2 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    728 (high) days
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    12 (high) months
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    6 months
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    203 days


Northern red-backed voles are generally solitary, but may congregate into family groups, especially during winter. They are mostly crepuscular, but may be active during any hour of the day. These voles are avctive year-round. In arctic/subarctic regions, where daylight cycles vary extremely, they rapidly adapt to changing circadian cycles. Pronounced annual cycle in body mass was well documented in interior Alaska. Body mass peaked in early summer for females and in spring for males. (Batzli, 1999; Tavernier, et al., 2004; West, 1977; Zuercher, et al., 1999)

Home Range

Home range tends to decrease (and overlap with others) during winter and increase during warmer months. A female's home range can be from 0.5 to 0.1 hectares in size. (Batzli, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Communication and perception are underrepresented in literature. High-pitch vocalization may be produced in high stress situations, such as hostile contacts with potential predators. As in most mammals, it is likely that these voles use some forms of tactile communication during reproduction. Visual cues may also be used. (Morrison, et al., 1976; West, 1974; West, 1977)

Food Habits

Diet varies and includes berries, leaves, shoots, buds, and seeds of various plants, epigeous and hypogeous fungi, and lichens. Their diet includes a large variety of plant materials in the summer when plants are abundant. Voles gather and store food in their nests and the stored food comprises most of their diet during the winter months. Small invertebrates may occasionally be included in the diet and animal foods (e.g. eggs, cat/dog food) are sometimes fed in captivity. (Bangs, 1984; Jones, 1990; West, 1974; West, 1977; Zuercher, et al., 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • nectar
  • pollen
  • flowers
  • sap or other plant fluids
  • bryophytes
  • lichens
  • Other Foods
  • fungus


Northern red-backed voles are common prey to many carnivores and raptors. Cryptic coloration and crepuscular behavior are both antipredatory adaptations. (Kalela, 1957; Lensink, et al., 1955; Thurber, et al., 1992; West, 1974)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Northern red-backed voles act as plant and fungi dispersers (by caching seeds, breaking and relocating parts of vegetation, and ingestion and excretion of spores). They also play an important role as prey to many carnivorous predators, because they are active all winter long when other prey becomes less abundant. (Bangs, 1984; Jones, 1990; Lensink, et al., 1955; Thurber, et al., 1992)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Species Used as Host
  • None known.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Northern red-backed voles have been used as laboratory animals, but require more care and skill in handling than mice. (Dietrich and Preston, 1977; Morrison, et al., 1976)

  • Positive Impacts
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Northern red-backed voles readily invade human structures and dwellings. In high densities they can cause damage to farm crops. Interstitial pneumonia and interstitial nephritis were documented in northern red-backed voles, but involvement of viral agents was only suggested. No published information is available on viral or bacterial health threats. (Dietrich and Preston, 1977)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings
  • crop pest
  • household pest

Conservation Status

Northern red-backed voles are usually common and not protected throughout their range.


Tom Belik (author), University of Alaska Fairbanks, Link E. Olson (editor, instructor), University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


(as keyword in perception channel section) This animal has a special ability to detect heat from other organisms in its environment.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


Smithsonian iInstitution. 1993. "Clethrionomys rutilus" (On-line). Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Accessed November 18, 2004 at

Banfield, A. 1974. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bangs, E. 1984. Summer Food Habits of Voles, Clethrionomys rutilus and Microtus pennsylvanicus, on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 98/4: 489-492.

Batzli, G. 1999. Northern red-backed vole (Clethrionomys rutilus). Pp. 616-617 in D Wilson, S Ruff., eds. The Smithosonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington and London: The Smithsonian Institution Press.

Dietrich, R., D. Preston. 1977. The red backed vole (Clethrionomys rutilus) as a laboratory animal. Laboratory Animal Science, 27/4: 507-511.

Gilbert, S., C. Krebs. 1991. Population dynamics of Clethrionomys and Peromyscus in southwestern Yukon 1973-1989. Holarctic Ecology, 14: 250-259.

Gromov, I., I. Polyakov. 1992. Voles (Microtinae). Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Libraries and The National Science Foundation.

Jones, E. 1990. Effects of forage availability on home range and population density of Microtus pennsylvanicus . Journal of Mammology, 71/3: 382-389.

Kalela, O. 1957. Regulation of reproduction rate in subarctic populations of the vole Clethrionomys rufocanus (sund.). Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, IV. Biologica, Series A: 1-60.

Lensink, C., R. Skoog, J. Buckley. 1955. Food habits of marten in interior Alaska and their significance. Journal of Wildlife Management, 19/3: 364-368.

Martell, A., W. Fuller. 1979. Comparative demography of Clethrionomys rutilus in taiga and tundra in the low Arctic. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 57: 2106-2120.

Morrison, P., R. Dietrich, D. Preston. 1976. Breeding and reproduction of fifteen wild rodents maintained as laboratory colonies. Laboratory Animal Science, 26/2 part 1: 237-243.

Nadler, C., N. Zhurkevich, R. Hoffmann, A. Kozlovskii, L. Deutsch, C. Nadler. 1978. Biochemical relationships of the Holarctic vole genera (Clethrionomys, Microtus, and Arvicola (Rodentia: Arvicolinae)). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 56: 1564-1575.

Rausch, R. 1953. On the status of some arctic mammals. Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, 6: 91-148.

Runck, A. 2001. Molecular and morphological perspectives on post-glacial colonization of Clethrionomys rutilus and Clethrionomys gapperi in Southeast Alaska. Thesis, 1: 1-89.

Tavernier, R., A. Largen, A. Bult-Ito. 2004. Circadian Organization of a Subarctic Rodent, the Northern Red-backed Vole (Clethrionomys rutilus). Journal of Biological Rhythms, 19/3: 238-247.

Thurber, J., R. Peterson, J. Woolington, J. Vucetich. 1992. Coyote coexistence with wolves on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 70: 2494-2498.

West, S. 1977. Midwinter aggregation in the northern red-backed vole, Clethrionomys rutilus . Canadian Journal of Zoology, 55: 1404-1409.

West, S. 1974. Post-burn population response of the northern red-backed vole, Clethrionomys rutilus, in Interior Alaska. Unpublished thesis, University of Alaska: 1-66.

Youngman, 1975. Mammals of the Yukon Territory. National Museum of Natural Sciences Publications in Zoology, 10: 1-192.

Zuercher, G., D. Roby, E. Rexstad. 1999. Seasonal changes in body mass, composition, and organs of northern red-backed voles in Interior Alaska. Journal of Mammology, 80/2: 443-459.