Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?

lemming-suicide.jpg

Quite a fiesty debate amongst the musicians this morning on whether Lemmings commit suicide or not. I said no, that the general public only thought they did because of a Disney fiasco. Someone else who lives by lemmings said yes they do. Someone else said I shouldn’t disagree with someone who lives near lemmings because they would know best.

So thanks to my friend Google, here’s the ultimate information page to answer the big question: DO LEMMINGS COMMIT SUICIDE?

Short Answer:
Do lemmings commit group suicide?
Answer: No.

In a 50’s documentary by Disney, the film crew chased lemmings to their death to fake a dramatic mass suicide scene. They needed more drama footage for the movie. This was not uncovered until a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) investigation in 1983 by producer Brian Vallee.

The filmmakers confused mass migration with mass suicide. It IS true that lemmings follow a mysterious 4 year cycle. Every four years the dwindle to near extinction, then rocket back in over population. Because of the over population, many have to migrate and they don’t do it very well, so many die during migration.

Check out the original footage of Disney’s “White Wilderness” on youtube.com at:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=xMZlr5Gf9yY

Or search youtube.com for “white wilderness lemming”. The video shows dozens of lemmings jumping into the water and drowning. It’s pretty disgusting if you ask me.

httpv://youtube.com/watch?v=xMZlr5Gf9yY

Text from “White Wilderness” narrator:
They reach the final precipice. This is their last chance to turn back. Yet there they go. Casting themselves bodily out into space. All seem to survive the ordeal, for now they begin to swim. Not towards land strangely, but away from shore toward the far horizon. Others find the beaches by a roundabout way, but they too crash into the waves. It’s not given to man to understand all of nature’s mysteries. But as nearly as he can surmise, it would appear that the lemmings consider this body of water just another lake. And if it’s a lake, it must have a farther shore. So they strike out boldly. But gradually strength wanes, determination ebbs away. Soon the arctic sphere is dotted with tiny bobbing bodies. So it’s acted out the legend of mass suicide. The destruction of a species it would seem….

WOW. That’s just sick knowing they were chased off the cliff.

THE LOOOOOOOONG ANSWER:

What is a Lemming?

lemming.jpg

(Click image for full size resolution)

Lemmings are small rodents, usually found in or near the Arctic, in tundra biomes. Together with the voles and muskrats, they make up the subfamily Arvicolinae (also known as Microtinae), which forms part of the largest mammal radiation by far, the superfamily Muroidea, which also includes the rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.

Exhibit One – Snopes.com
Disney Crew Chases Lemmings to Fake Suicide

Yes, it’s true. You can read the full post at:
http://www.snopes.com/disney/films/lemmings.asp
(Snopes is a website that investigates urban legends – like the lady who dried her cat off in a microwave. Most of those cute stories you get in chain emails are debunked on this website).

Claim: During the filming of the 1958 Disney nature documentary White Wilderness, the film crew induced lemmings into jumping off a cliff and into the sea in order to document their supposedly suicidal behavior.

Status: True.

Exhibit B
Disney Fiasco and Current Research – About.com

Click for About.com Lemming Suicide Article

Thanks mainly to faked footage of migrating lemmings hurtling en masse over a cliff in the Oscar-winning 1958 Disney documentary ‘White Wilderness,’ it has been popularly believed for decades that the tiny arctic rodents have an inborn death wish — supposedly nature’s way of thinning out the herd. Not so, say European researchers who recently completed a 15-year study of the creatures in their native habitat. The lemming population does wax and wane cyclically, the scientists confirmed, but the periodic dip in numbers is due to predators, not mass suicide.

Our first clue that lemmings don’t commit group suicide came when we spotted a web page from the Urban Legends Reference Pages in our results. We’ve encountered this site before while researching questions for Ask Yahoo! and have come to rely on its unceremonious presentation of the cold hard facts.

The page claims that during the filming of a 1958 Disney documentary, White Wilderness, the film crew imported lemmings into Alberta, Canada, (not a natural habitat for the animals) then herded a group of a few dozen lemmings over a cliff and into the water in order to stage a mass migration and demonstrate their reported suicidal behavior. While Disney didn’t fabricate this scientific myth, the film certainly helped fuel the misconception that lemmings commit group suicide when their population level is too high.

In reality, however, lemmings are not that altruistic. The animals are known for cyclical population explosions that occur approximately every four years. During such a peak, the population may multiple a thousandfold and food becomes scarce, forcing enormous groups of the rodents to migrate to newer territories. While migrating, some lemmings do fall off cliffs or drown, but these deaths are accidental and are caused by venturing into unfamiliar areas, rather than suicidal tendencies.

A thorough review of the remaining search results failed to turn up any evidence that the critters do indeed off themselves en masse.

Exhibit C
At Last the Truth About Lemmings – Guardian.co.uk
15 year research shows Lemmings do not commit mass suicide

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2003/oct/31/internationalnews

Excerpt:

Biologists have put paid to a folk myth while resolving the mystery of one of the world’s most puzzling boom-and-bust cycles – the four year population explosion of the lemming.

Every few years, the numbers of the vole, clinging to a precarious existence in the Arctic tundra, expands 1,000-fold. The gregarious little rodents feed off berries, moss and lichen; gestate for 20 days; and produce up to nine offspring at a time.

Their name is from the Norwegian for “destroyer”. When the food runs out, they migrate. They do not, however, commit mass suicide by leaping off cliffs, a myth compounded 45 years ago by Walt Disney’s White Wilderness film – which showed lemmings apparently going to their doom.

But the puzzle remained: why do lemming numbers explode, and then crash?

The answer, according to German and Finnish researchers in Science today, has more to do with their enemies than any self-destructive urges.

lemming2.jpg

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Exhibit D
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Disney Faked Lemming Suicide

http://www.wc.adfg.state.ak.us

Read this link on lemming suicide faked by Disney or visit http://www.wc.adfg.state.ak.us and search “lemming”.

Excerpt:

According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the lemming scenes were faked. The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers. The epic “lemming migration” was staged using careful editing, tight camera angles and a few dozen lemmings running on snow covered lazy-Susan style turntable.

“White Wilderness” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a landlocked province, and not on location in lemmings’ natural habitat. There are about 20 lemming species found in the circumpolar north – but evidently not in that area of Alberta. So the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children a couple provinces away in Manitoba and staged the whole sequence.

Exhibit E
Animal Planet – Lemming Extreme Myths

You can watch the video from animal planet by going to youtube.com and searching “Lemming Suicide”

As of this post – this video footage was located here:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=VM_P_hcoPhg

httpv://youtube.com/watch?v=VM_P_hcoPhg

It has clips from the original Disney documentary and also debunks the lemming suicide myth.

Exhibit F
University of Connecticut
– June 12, 2000
Lemmings Limited by Food Supply Not Suicide, Says Biologist

http://advance.uconn.edu/2000/000612/00061214.htm

Excerpt:

The periodic explosions in the population of Norwegian lemmings, followed by times of scarcity, have more to do with the availability of food than the widespread belief that the furry rodents commit suicide en masse when their numbers grow too large.

That’s the conclusion advanced by Peter Turchin, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn, and colleagues at universities in Sweden and Finland in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

Lemming suicide is fiction, the researchers say. The little mammals are “predators” who “prey”on moss. As their numbers grow, lemmings deplete their forage in arctic and alpine habitats more rapidly than the slow-growing mosses can replenish themselves. Faced with a desperate shortage of food, the lemmings attempt to migrate in search of areas where food may still be remaining.

“It’s a completely natural strategy,” notes Turchin. “If they stay in the same place they will starve. They have nothing to lose. ”

Conclusion:

I hope that is enough info that lemmings do not commit suicide. We have the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, University of Connecticut, Snopes.com, About.com and even Animal Planet all saying it’s a myth.

Interesting Trivia: In Sweden I’m told that when the Lemming population explodes every four years or so it’s called “A Lemming Year”.

One thought on “Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?

  1. In South Texas, we had an explosion of field rats one summer. As a kid I was a field laborer. Fellow laborers, male and female, witnessed these rats scurrying alongside the cedar posts barb-wire-fence and cautus. To keep from the blazing sun we ate our meals underneath the large trucks that hauled us to the fields. The rats and the laborers had a symbiotic relationship: the rats would not hurt us and we in turn would not hurt them.

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