Wednesday, November 27, 2013

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How do lemmings die?

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Not by mass suicide, if that’s what you’re thinking.

The suicide idea seems to have originated in the work of nineteenth-century naturalists who had
witnessed (but not understood) the four-year boom-and-bust population cycle of the Norwegian
lemming (Lemmus lemmus).

Lemmings have a phenomenal reproductive capacity. A single female can produce up to eighty
offspring a year. Sudden surges in their numbers once led Scandinavians to think they were
spontaneously generated by the weather.

What actually happens is that mild winters lead to overpopulation that in turn leads to over-grazing.
The lemmings set off into unfamiliar territory in search of food until they pile up against natural
obstacles like cliffs, lakes and seas. The lemmings keep coming. Panic and violence ensue. Accidents happen. But it isn’t suicide.

A secondary myth has evolved which is that the whole idea of mass suicide was invented by the
1958 Walt Disney film White Wilderness. It’s true that the film was a complete fake. It was filmed in land-locked, lemming-free Alberta, Canada: the lemmings had to be bussed in from several hundred miles away in Manitoba. The shots of the ‘migration’ were made using a few lemmings on a snowcovered turntable. The notorious final scene – where lemmings plunge into the sea to the doom-laden voice-over of Winston Hibbler: ‘This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space’ – was created by the film-makers simply throwing the lemmings into a river.

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But Disney was only guilty of trying to recreate an already entrenched story. Here it is described in
the most influential children’s reference book of the early twentieth century, Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, published in 1908: ‘They march straight forward, over hill and dell, through gardens, farms, villages, into wells and ponds to poison water and cause typhoid… on and on to the sea, then into the water to destruction…

It is sad and terrible, but if the dismal exodus did not occur lemmings would long ago have eaten
Europe bare.’

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