If you have ever heard of lemmings, you will probably imagine those little fluffy rodents that are pretty stupid and commit mass suicides by jumping off cliffs. Their tragic story has become synonymous with blindly following a crowd, and their sad fate demonstrates the moral of any story beginning with the classic parental question of if all your other friends jumped off a bridge…
Except that lemmings don’t actually gather into little fluffy lemming herds to hurl themselves off cliffs. (Disney filmographers did that once though, but we will get to that later.)
So imagine my surprise when sitting in my “Psychology of Animal Behavior” class the other day, I hear my professor use mass suicides in lemming populations as an example of a coordinated group behavior. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. My animal behavior professor did not just actually tell his class this right? I was shocked that he would use this as an example, and if he was just using it symbolically, not everyone in the class understood his humor.
So here it is: Lemming mass suicides are false. They don’t jump off cliffs to icy waters of death. They just don’t.
But the incorporation of this myth into modern-day belief is a pretty interesting story involving a nature documentary that apparently wasn’t interesting enough for the general audience without fabricating odd animal behavior (which is a sad fact if filmographers felt they needed to jazz up the wonders of nature).
In an effort to prove my professor wrong (which I enjoy far too much sometimes), I started googling and this was the best site I found: Great Moments in Science. I took the liberty of summing up my findings below:
FACT: The 1958 Disney documentary “White Wilderness” was meant to be an accurate nature documentary filmed in Canada. It features lemmings migrating across an open tundra, then plunging to their deaths in icy rivers in a coordinated manner. The film treats this behavior as scientific fact and incorporates it nicely into the rest of the documentary about tundra wildlife.
MYTH: Lemmings are not from the region where the film was made, they were in fact brought there by the filmographers, and filmed on a snow-covered turntable to look as though they were on a massive trek across the tundra. Then a small handful of them were herded off the turntable right into a river, creating the illusion of a mass suicide. (PETA wasn’t founded until 1980, otherwise I’m guessing they would have had a strong opinion on this matter.)
This film, along with the public’s general lack of knowledge at the time, led to the spread of the myth of lemming suicides which is still a part of our culture. To be fair, the film crew (probably unknowingly) picked a good animal to perpetrate strange behavior for: there was already a medieval Nordic myth that they spontaneously generated and fell from the sky during storms. (Which, just saying, flying lemmings set against a back-drop of thunder and lightning would have made for a much more epic documentary scene – if I would good at Photoshop you would also get to enjoy this imagery, but alas, I’m not.) In light of an increase in scientific understanding, later myths acknowledged that lemmings were not created through spontaneous generation, so any in the sky were a result of wind.
All that being said, the filmographers likely based their ideas on the scientific fact that in high population surges, migrations can be dangerous for lemmings and some are bound to die by being pushed, crushed, or drowned by the sheer weight of other lemmings. So according to population dynamics, the myth has a basis of fact in that migrations can be dangerous, but with a large, large flair of artistic license.
(I had to include this, I freaking love Gary Larsen’s Far Side comics)
And thus concludes this rant.
*Also, just an additional note: Although I have never actually seen the film, I really want to and it apparently is “visually stunning” and “one of Disney’s best documentaries” (I’m not sure what this means for Disney’s other documentaries like “Chimpanzee”, “Big Cats”, or Babies”). And it even won an Oscar for “Best Documentary” in 1960. More info here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052389/
What’s coming soon:
So what is this cool place? What makes it famous? Coming Soon!