Sheeple, sheep, one of the herd, brick in a wall, lemmings… There are plenty of ways to describe those who blindly follow trends and conform to norms. But today we’re going to delve into the origins of just one of them: lemmings. These tough little rodents are well-known for hurling themselves off cliffs and plummeting to their death in mass suicide events. This is how the figurative use of “lemmings” originated, which has since infiltrated everything from video games to Blink 182 songs.
But why would any animal do such a thing? Surely this is at odds with the idea that animals instinctually struggle to survive and thrive at all costs? Perhaps, it’s just one of those bizarre quirks of nature.
Lemmings are certainly quirky. They’ve adapted to live in the Arctic tundra, and are so resilient they don’t even hibernate through the harsh winter. Like other rodents, lemmings can rapidly reproduce and periodically boom out of control. Intriguingly, however, this boom is followed by a drastic reduction in numbers to near extinction. This boom-bust cycle occurs every four years, and it remains a mystery why such enormous population variation is observed.
In an attempt to explain this puzzling population problem, the geographer Ziegler of Strasbourg proclaimed in 1530 that lemmings fell out of the sky during storms, and then they promptly died when spring grasses sprouted. Natural historian Ole Worm disagreed with this proposition. Instead, he asserted that lemmings did not spontaneously generate in stormy weather, but were picked up and transported by strong winds.
Thankfully, science progressed from magically conjuring rodents. However the population cycle conundrum persisted. Soon, theories of lemmings committing mass suicide as a method of population control began to appear. It wasn’t until 1958 that the theory was popularised, thanks to Walt Disney and a nature documentary called White Wilderness. In this Academy award-winning film, lemmings are depicted scurrying across the snow as they migrate, before reaching a cliff. They tumble down the rocky slopes and into the Arctic Ocean below, where they frantically swim until they perish from exhaustion.
As it turns out, the film producer faked the White Wilderness footage. To construct the lemming legend, the producer bought several dozen lemmings from Inuits. They transported the lemmings away from their native Arctic habitat to Alberta, Canada. Here, with some clever camera-work, a mass migration scene was filmed using only the few purchased lemmings. A turntable flung lemmings in all directions, before they were herded over a cliff top to their death in a river below. It’s sad to think that Disney treated these rodents so cruelly, especially as their legacy lives on with another rodent, the iconic Mickey Mouse.
So the footage isn’t real, and neither is the whole “mass suicide” hypothesis. We don’t fully understand the crazy population swings of lemmings, although we do know that they migrate when the population density becomes too great. During these journeys, lemmings can cross bodies of water up to 200 metres wide, and inevitably in such crossings, there are incidences of drowning.
Next time you go to call someone a lemming, choose another option instead. These hardy little guys don’t deserve to be denigrated, especially after their unnecessary suffering at the hands of Disney. Let’s show lemmings some love.