There are several misconceptions about these small rodents that are usually found in or near the Arctic in tundra biomes (where the tree growth is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons).
Misconceptions date back to several centuries. In the 1530s, geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg put forward a theory suggesting that lemmings fell out of the sky during stormy weather and then died immediately afterwards when the grass grew in the spring. Natural historian Ole Worm, contradicted this notion, although he admitted that they could be falling from the sky. He claimed that they had been brought over by the wind. The work of Carl Linnaeus proved that they had a natural origin, and anatomical similarities to most other rodents like voles and hamsters.
But one popular legend persisted-how every four years frenzied millions of these little rodents to commit mass suicide by hurling themselves from Norwegian cliffs into the sea to drown.
Over the centuries, advanced studies about the life cycle of lemmings have revealed that jumping off cliffs is a result of their migratory behavior.
The lemming is normally shy and scarce. In the first year, their reproduction is slow, but it builds up during the next two years. By the fourth year, the females are almost continually with the young. It is during this period that they are driven by strong biological urges that causes panic-presumably due to increase in population density/overcrowding. Desperate to search a living space, they quit their habitat in large groups.
Due to this maniacal rush, it is possible that the vulnerable rodents fail to notice a steep river valley or a fiord. Driven by distress, they plunge in deliriously.
Lemmings are fair swimmers in calm water. However, if the body of water is so wide that it stretches the lemming’s physical capabilities to the limit, it will inevitably perish.
Because of their association with this odd behavior, lemming “suicide” is a frequently used metaphor in reference to people who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences.
Featured header image source: BBC