Lemmings are rodents, about six inches long. There are several species of lemming. I will be talking of the Norway lemming, species Lemmus lemmus. It lives in Norway. The word "lemming" is Norweigan.
From the Oxford English Dictionary: "Used figuratively to denote a person bent on a headlong rush, often towards disaster." This comes from the story that lemmings commit suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea.
But there is an older story: 1607 - E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 727 "There are certaine little Foure-footed-beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes."
Lemmings donít hibernate. They are solitary animals by nature and do not usually gather in large groups. In winter, they live under the snow, where they feed and breed. When the snow melts, suddenly lemmings appear, hence the old story of them dropping from the clouds.
In summer lemmings move to better feeding areas, and this is a normal, migration. But lemming populations fluctuate wildly. When the population is at its lowest, lemmings will be so thin on the ground that there might be just one in a million sq ft. However, in good times the same area could be home to as many as 3000. When this happens, food runs out, and the lemmings change their behaviour. They move to search for food, sometimes in enormous groups. This leads to the modern story, since most of these lemmings die, either from starvation, or from predators that gather in large numbers. They do not commit suicide, but those stories grew up to explain all the deaths.
In 1958, Disney made a film called White Wilderness which "showed" this lemming behaviour. But it was the wrong species of lemming, and they were in the wrong country (Canada rather than Norway). The whole thing was set up. They paid Eskimos "$1 per live lemmingĒ. Then they drove them towards a cliff until they fell over. Some of the lemmings survived that, and swum around, while the voice over declaimed that they would swim onwards until they drowned. The film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, but has since become notorious.
There is another modern story, that Norway lemmings are aggressive. This story is true. No-one knows why. At the peak of the population boom, the lemmings also become noticeably more aggressive. "A person walking across the meadow would cause the lemmings, several metres away, to give themselves away by unexpectedly shrieking and jumping about," noted one group of researchers. "Even the farm tractor was greeted in this way, leaving a trail of infuriated lemmings behind." (I can't help but chuckle at the thought of this!)
There is another story: lemmings get so furious they explode. This story is false! It may have come about through people seeing large numbers of lemmings after they had been killed by predators."
Scientists research why there are these population fluctuations. They discount the mass suicides, the falling from clouds, and the self-explosions! There are theories about the link to predator populations. But my favourite is that it depends on the right kind of snow (with memories of the wrong kind of snow causing train chaos in Britain). The lemming population is normally kept in check by poor winter conditions, but if itís nice and snug under the snow, they can carry on breeding to get these large numbers. They are amazingly prolific breeders, breeding several times a year, so if the numbers are not reduced in the winter, the population will explode in the summer, until the food starts to run out.
Finally, there was a Lemming computer game in 1991, which was very popular. Little lemmings would walk forwards, bounce off walls, and fall down any cliffs or holes in their way. The idea of the game was to guide them home, by changing some of them into blockers or diggers, to protect them from harm or direct them to where they needed to go. It was a surprisinly positive game, as you were trying to save the lemmings, and it took a certain amount of logical problem solving to do so, although I admit that children enjoyed the plaintive squeak of distress as a lemming would plummet to its death! However, when thinking about the game, after this research, I realised that at the start of each level, lemmings would drop from the sky (through a trap door), they would carry on walking forward in a group and fall over a cliff and get killed if not stopped. And various other activities include blowing themselves up. The game was actually a reasonably accurate account of the myths of lemmings! And, unlike the Disney film, at least no REAL lemmings were killed during it! Here is an image of the game below:
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