Lies of Leaping Lemmings

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-history/lies-leaping-lemmings

You’ve likely heard phrases like ‘don’t be a lemming’, or your run of the mill internet troll scream-typing about how we’re all following our governments ‘like lemmings, over the cliff to our doom!’ What you might not know though is that the idea of the suicidal lemmings is a completely fabricated oneLemmings do not jump to their doom off of cliffs.

Lemmings have often been the subject of bizarre beliefs. A 1530 geographer, Zeigler of Strasbourg, theorizing that lemmings literally fell out of the sky and into existence during stormy weather, a theory he picked up from Alaskan native peoples the Yupik and Iñupiat. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that Carl Linnaeus proved lemmings had a natural origin. In 1958 however, Disney reignited the mystery around lemmings with their documentary White Wilderness. A scene in the film (click here to watch it) shows lemmings hurling themselves off of a cliff into the sea, seemingly drawn by some unknown force. This famously successful film won an academy award and is almost solely responsible for the creation of the suicidal lemming belief. However, in a 1982 CBC investigation revealed that

1. No lemmings are found natively where the documentary was filmed, because

2. White Wilderness was filmed in land-locked Alberta, not on the Arctic Ocean, so to get around it, Disney

3. Purchased a few dozen lemmings from Inuit children and herded them over a snow-covered lazy-Susan and into a river.

So how did Disney come up with the idea to murder some lemmings for a film? Well, lemmings, like other rodents, do reproduce rapidly and experience great population booms, and when a population at a location gets too massive, they will disperse from the site, so if an observer was monitoring only 1 location, they may see what seems to be a mass, unexplained death. Disney did get 2 things right at least, lemmings do not hibernate, and they do swim, though much better than is implied in White Wilderness.

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