The Truth about Lemmings

LONDON (Reuters) [2.24.98] - Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not hurl themselves over cliffs in their hundreds to drown in the sea, British naturalists said Tuesday. The small furry animals' doomed migrations are the stuff of legend, entering the language as a metaphor for the mass behavior of crowds who follow each other in a stampede that leads inevitably to their downfall.

But British naturalists have decided the time has come to explode the myth about these maligned animals. The hamster-like creatures, which thrive in their thousands in arctic conditions and are strong swimmers, have a well-honed instinct for survival, they say.

"Scientists have known for many, many years that this was myth. But no one wanted to believe them. Lemmings don't leap off cliffs," said Michelle Thompson, the producer of a BBC television program that studied the rodents in one of their natural habitats in Canada.

Far from leaping suicidally to avoid overcrowding and thus make room for new generations, the film-makers found that lemmings actually stayed put, grew fat and bred prolifically as long as food supplies lasted.

Myths about the migrating habits of the lemming grew up over time because of their ability to reproduce in dramatic numbers while hidden under the snow.

"When the thaw comes suddenly there's hundreds of (lemmings) all over the place and nobody could believe that they were breeding under the snow, so the native tribes in Scandinavia and Canada spread stories that they came from outer space," Thompson said.

And it is only a short jump from the widely held belief that lemmings fall from the skies to the image of them tumbling off cliffs into the sea, she said.

"It became a word version of Chinese whispers," said Thompson, whose program shows a lemming approaching the edge of a cliff before wisely stopping short.


 Disney's Lemming Snuff Film

In the pathetic lemming scene of White Wilderness (Disney, 1958), hundreds of of the Arctic rodents dutifully toss themselves over a cliff into certain death in the icy arctic waters. One of Disney's class True Life Adventure nature films, White Wilderness purports to be a cinema verite look at the life of the Arctic. But lemmings don't commit mass suicide. As far as zoologists can tell, it's a myth. How did the Disney people document it on film?

According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, White Wilderness's lemming scene was sheer fabrication. Vallee says the lemmings were pushed and, uh, thrown off the cliff.

White Wilderness's voice-over implies that lemmings take the plunge every seven to ten years to alleviate overpopulation. It's no picnic in the lemmings' "weird world of frozen chaos." "The lemmings quite literally eat themselves out of house and home," explains narrator Winston Hibbler as the lemmings pig out on the tundra. "With things as crowded as this, someone has to make room for somebody somehow. And so, Nature herself takes a hand."

Crazed rodents assemble for the mass migration. "A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny." The narration says that once they get the urge to move, they lemmings are oblivious to their fate. They are shown crossing a tiny stream. They will even swim lakes in their desperation. A few fall victim to birds and an ermine.

Hibbler plays up the psychological angle: "They've become victims of an obsession -- a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!" A trumpet of doom sounds. Finally, the fey pack approaches the Arctic Ocean. "They reach the final precipice. This is the last chance to turn back." Lump in throat, Hibbler blurts, "Yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space." The mixed-up rodents think this is "just another lake"!

The camera angle is fantastic. Lemmings are seen leaping into the sea from an airy vantage point far above. They remain in razor-sharp focus as they plunge into oblivion. You don't have to be a cinematographer to guess that this shot took a little advance preparation.

The final shot shows a leaden sea awash with dying lemmings.

"Gradually, strength wanes...determination ebbs away...and the Arctic Sea is dotted with tiny bobbing bodies."

Of course, certain scenes in nature films are staged as a matter of expediency and economics. On occasion, that means sacrificing an animal to show the natural cycle of predation. What has raised a few eyebrows about White Wilderness is the mass imperilment of animals to depict a mytical event.

According to Vallee, the lemming footage was filmed in Alberta -- a landlocked province -- and not on location in th lemmings' natural habitat. Lemmings to not congregate in that area, so the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children in Manitoba.

Once they got the lemmings to Alberta, they placed them on a giant turntable piled with snow. Carefully edited footage of the rodents' travails on the spinning turntable became the film's migration segment. Then, Vallee claims, they recaptured the lemmings and took them to a cliff over a river. When the well-adjusted lemmings wouldn't jump, the Disney people gave Nature a hand.

(taken from pp. 235-236 of Bigger Secrets by William Poundstone, published by Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-53008-3, and no, I didn't get permission to reprint it here)