If there’s one thing anybody knows about lemmings, it’s that they cluelessly follow each other off of cliffs to their imminent doom in a bizarre mass suicide, because they are silly little rodents severely lacking in smarts. But is it true?
Misconceptions about lemmings date back to the 1530s, when geographer Ziegler of Strasbourg proposed that lemmings don’t breed, but are created by stormy weather and fall out of the sky, only to die the instant grass begins to grow in the spring. Because science.
Natural historian Ole Worm supported the idea that lemmings fall from the sky (again with the science), but proposed that this was because they were being carried from their breeding grounds by strong winds, and were not created by the wind itself. He dissected lemmings, proving that they were a heck of a lot like other rodents, and in the 1700s, Carl Linnaeus used Worm’s work to prove that lemmings do in fact reproduce just like all other rodents, and don’t come from the sky. Let me remind you that it took 200 years to figure that out.
Lemmings become migratory when their populations grow too large, and they are actually excellent swimmers, able to cross bodies of water if the water is not too wide or too fast-moving. In Norway, upon seeing great numbers of lemmings hopping into rivers and then noticing a great decline in lemming populations, people assumed that the lemmings were committing suicide in the rivers to decrease their oversized populations, rather than going to live on the other side of the river. This legend was propagated by a 1958 Disney movie called White Wilderness, which showed lemmings migrating across frozen tundras and leaping into the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean from ice-covered cliffs. In 1982, it was discovered that these scenes were filmed in a Canadian film studios by placing imported lemmings on a turntable covered in fake snow and then using that same turntable to launch the unfortunate rodents off cliffs.
In reality, lemmings do jump into rivers, but it’s not because they are stupid or suicidal. If they die in the rivers, it’s from exhaustion due to underestimating the width of the body of water they are trying to cross. So no, lemmings don’t commit mass suicide when their populations get to large. They just try to move away.