Historical Events  Science
Lemmings

Do lemmings deliberately kill themselves?

MMDE: Yes

Current: No

Picture the idea of lemmings "killing themselves" and there's always one thing that's present but never thought about. That is, they are always jumping off a cliff into water.

The popular misconception of them deliberately killing themselves ignores this fact, and focuses on the cliff. This is the key to their behaviour, where it turns out they are not committing suicide at all. In fact, they are migrating, which also explains why you always hear of large groups doing this at once, rather than individual ones at different times.

The herd is aware it has outgrown it's current location, in terms of resources and habitat, so instinct kicks in and collectively they know it's time to move on. They have been living near rivers and streams, so are used to crossing by swimming and always, until now, got to the other side safely, if a little tired. Unfortunately, all this combines to them thinking they just need to keep swimming to migrate, but don't realise how different the ocean is, but do know it's the one place they haven't been before.

Disney's 1958 "White Wilderness"

The villain of this piece is unexpected. In 1958, Disney produced a documentary called "White Wilderness" covering the behaviour of lemmings in the wild. It supposedly showed them committing suicide by jumping off cliffs, but it also garnered a great deal of controversy when it emerged that the film makers were actually throwing the lemmings to get better footage.

In 1983, Brian Vallee, a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, conducted a review of the 1958 Disney film. He found many problems. For a start, it wasn't filmed in the lemmings natural habitat, but in Alberta, Canada, which is land locked. He found when the lemmings were shown to be leaping from the cliffs, they had actually been thrown off by the Disney film makers for dramatic effect. They also used staged camera angles and misleading editing to further their narrative. They bought the lemmings from the Innuits many miles away from where they filmed.

Myth

There was a minor misunderstanding regarding the sup;posed suicidal lemming behaviour, but rather than clear this up the Disney production served to do the exact opposite. Once a video of them doing it hit the mainstream, from an organisation perceived to be so reputable, the idea became so cemented it was virtually unshakable.

Some MMDE's have origins practically impossible to get to the root of, but not this one.