Temporal range: Late Miocene – Recent
Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Superfamily: Muroidea
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Arvicolinae
Gray, 1821

see text

Arvicolinae is a subfamily of rodents that includes the voles, lemmings, and muskrats. Its closest relatives are members of the other subfamilies in the Cricetidae, the hamsters and New World rats and mice[1]. Sometimes the subfamily Arvicolinae is placed in the family Muridae along with all other members of the superfamily Muroidea[2]. It is also sometimes referred to as Microtinae or is recognized as a family, Arvicolidae [3].

They are the most populous group of Rodentia in the Northern Hemisphere. They are often found in fossil occlusions of bones cached by past predators such as owls and other birds of prey.

Fossils of this group are often used for biostratigraphic dating of archeological sites in North America and Europe[4].



The arvicolines are most easily identified based on their molar teeth, which show prismatic cusps consisting of alternating triangles. These molars are ever-growing and are well adapted to a herbivorous lifestyle.

Arvicolines are Holarctic in distribution and represent one of the only major muroid radiations to reach the New World via Beringia. The other are the three subfamilies of New World rats and mice. Arvicolines do very well in the subnival zone beneath the winter snowpack and persist throughout winter without needing to hibernate. They are also characterized by extreme fluctuations in population size.

Most arvicolines are small, furry, short tailed voles or lemmings, but some such as Ellobius and Hyperacrius are well adapted to a fossorial lifestyle. Others, such as Ondatra, Neofiber, and Arvicola have evolved a larger body size and associated with an aquatic lifestyle.

Some authorities have placed the zokors within the Arvicolinae, but they have been shown to be unrelated.

The subfamily Arvicolinae contains ten tribes, seven of which are classified as voles, one as lemmings, and two as muskrats.


Skull of a Bank Vole. Note the distinctive molar pattern characteristic of arvicolines.

Subfamily Arvicolinae - voles, lemmings, muskrats

Fossil species

  • Tribe Dicrostonychini - collared lemmings
    • Genus Predicrostonyx
      • Hopkins's Lemming, Predicrostonyx hopkinsi
  • Tribe Clethrionomyini
    • Genus Altaiomys


The phylogeny of Arvicolinae has been studied using morphological and molecular characters. Markers for the molecular phylogeny of arvicolines included the mitochondrial DNA cytochrome b (cyb) gene [5] and the exon 10 of the growth hormone receptor (ghr) nuclear gene [6]. The comparison of the cyb and ghr phylogenetic results seems to indicate that nuclear genes are useful for resolving relationships of recently evolved animals. As compared to mitochondrial genes, nuclear genes display several informative sites in third codon positions that evolve rapidly enough to accumulate synapomorphies, but slow enough to avoid evolutionary noise. Of note, mitochondrial pseudogenes translocated within the nuclear genome complicate the assessment of the mitochondrial DNA orthology, but they can also be used as phylogenetic markers [7]. Sequencing complete mitochondrial genomes of voles [8] may help to distinguish between authentical genes and pseudogenes.

The complementary phylogenetic analysis of morphological and molecular characters [6][9] suggests that :

  • Ellobius, Prometheomys and Lagurus are among the most basal arvicolines ;
  • Dicrostonyx, Phenacomys and Arborimus may form a clade ;
  • Core arvicolines include three subclades:
    • Lemmini: Synaptomys, Lemmus, Myopus ;
    • Clethrionomyini: Eothenomys, Myodes ;
    • Arvicolini: Arvicola, Chionomys, Stenocranius and Microtus.
  • Microtus sensu lato contains Alexandromys, ‘Neodon’, Mynomes, Lasiopodomys, Terricola, and Microtus sensu stricto ;
  • Ondatra and Dinaromys positions are uncertain, probably compromised by the convergent evolution of morphological characters.


  1. ^ Steppan, S. J., R. A. Adkins, and J. Anderson. 2004. Phylogeny and divergence date estimates of rapid radiations in muroid rodents based on multiple nuclear genes. Systematic Biology, 53:533-553.
  2. ^ Musser, G. G. and M. D. Carleton. 2005. Superfamily Muroidea. Pp. 894-1531 in Mammal Species of the World a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder eds. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  3. ^ McKenna, M. C. and S. K. Bell. 1997. Classification of Mammals above the Species Level. Columbia University Press, New York.
  4. ^ Klein, Richard (2009). The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. London: The University of Chicago Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780226439655. 
  5. ^ Conroy CJ, Cook JA. 1999. MtDNA evidence for repeated pulses of speciation within arvicoline and murid rodents. J. Mammal. Evol. 6:221-245.
  6. ^ a b Galewski T, Tilak M, Sanchez S, Chevret P, Paradis E, Douzery EJP. 2006. The evolutionary radiation of Arvicolinae rodents (voles and lemmings): relative contribution of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA phylogenies. BMC Evol. Biol. 6:80.
  7. ^ Triant DA, DeWoody JA. 2008. Molecular analyses of mitochondrial pseudogenes within the nuclear genome of arvicoline rodents. Genetica 132:21-33.
  8. ^ Lin Y-H, Waddell PJ, Penny D. 2002. Pika and vole mitochondrial genomes increase support for both rodent monophyly and glires. Gene 294:119-129.
  9. ^ Robovsky J, Ricánková V, Zrzavy J. 2008. Phylogeny of Arvicolinae (Mammalia, Cricetidae): utility of morphological and molecular data sets in a recently radiating clade. Zool. Scripta 37:571–590.

External links

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