Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Today: Lemmings Jumping to Their Deaths
Are Lemmings Cliff-Jumping Maniacs?
Lemmings are hamster-sized rodents that live in the snowy Arctic. They have a reputation for participating in massive migrations, where herds of the tiny critters mindlessly leap off of cliffs to their deaths. Depending on who’s telling, they’re either too unyielding in their stubborn march in one direction to stop, or they just aren’t intelligent enough to know any better.
This idea of lemming behavior has become so prevalent that it’s fallen into popular jargon, where calling someone a lemming means they are unthinking and prone to join mass movements.
Disney’s Role in the Myth
The lemming myth was popularized by none other than the Walt Disney Company in the Academy Award-winning nature documentary, White Wilderness. Released in 1958, the film was part of a series of movies showing “true to life” depictions of animals in their natural environments. The film’s depiction of lemmings, however, was steeped in deception.
The filming of these Norwegian lemmings, for example, was done in Alberta, Canada. Rumor has it that the Walt Disney company paid a dollar per lemming to Inuit hunters to provide the rodents. The film stages these lemmings in their march to death. In the film, they show hundreds of lemmings spilling off a cliff into the ocean to drown.
“A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny.”—narration from White Wilderness.
What we don’t see—just off frame—are the filmmakers pushing the lemmings off the cliff. The whole thing is a fabrication. The “ocean” they jumped into was even just a river! The Canadian Broadcast Corporation even found that the lemmings were made to run on a snow-covered lazy-susan to make their numbers look larger for the film.
Real Lemming Behavior
Lemmings live in the tundra, where they build tunnels underground during long periods of snow. While winter rages on, these rodents travel and copulate under the snow, expanding their populations. As the thaw of spring comes, all of these lemmings can find themselves above ground, and with too many mouths to feed.
They sometimes make enormous migrations looking for new food sources. Depending on climate, predators, and food, a lemming population can increase by ten-fold over the winter season. In their search for food, they have been seen swimming across lakes en masse, and some have been observed drowning, but this far from mass suicide or intentional cliff-jumping.
“It’s a complete urban legend.”—Thomas McDonough, Research Biologist at Alaska Department of Fish and Game.