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Tunturisopuli Lemmus Lemmus.jpg
Lemmus lemmus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Arvicolinae
Tribe: Lemmini*

 * Incomplete listing: see vole

A lemming is a small rodent usually found in or near the Arctic in tundra biomes. They make up the subfamily Arvicolinae (also known as Microtinae) together with voles and muskrats, which forms part of the superfamily Muroidea, which also includes rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.

Description and habitat[edit]

Lemmings measure around 13 – 18 centimeters (5 – 7 inches) in length and weigh around 23 – 34 grams (0.05 – 0.07 pounds). Lemmings are quite rounded in shape with brown and black long, soft fur. Lemmings have a very short tail, a stubby, hairy snout, short legs and small ears. They have a flattened claw on their first digit of their front feet which helps them to dig in the snow. They are herbivorous, feeding mostly on moss and grass.They also forage through the snow surface to find berries, leaves, shoots, roots, bulbs and lichen[1]. Lemmings choose their preferred dietary vegetation disproportionately to its occurrence in their habitat.[2] They digest grasses and sedges less effectively than related voles.[3] Like other rodents, their incisors grow continuously, allowing them to exist on much tougher forage.

Lemmings do not hibernate through the harsh northern winter. They remain active, finding food by burrowing through the snow. These rodents live in large tunnel systems beneath the snow in winter which protects them from predators. Their underground burrows have rest areas, bathrooms and nesting rooms. Lemmings make nests out of grasses, feathers and musk ox wool. In the spring, they move to higher ground where they live on mountain heaths or in forests, continuously breeding before returning in Autumn to the Alpine zone.


Like many other rodents, lemmings have periodic population booms and then disperse in all directions, seeking the food and shelter their natural habitats cannot provide. The Norway lemming and brown lemming are two of the few vertebrates which reproduce so quickly that their population fluctuations are chaotic,[4][5] rather than following linear growth to a carrying capacity or regular oscillations. It is not known why lemming populations fluctuate with such great variance roughly every four years, before numbers drop to near extinction.[6] Lemming behavior and appearance are markedly different from those of other rodents, which are inconspicuously colored and try to conceal themselves from their predators. Lemmings, by contrast, are conspicuously colored and behave aggressively towards predators and even human observers. The lemming defense system is thought to be based on aposematism (warning display).[7] Fluctuations in the lemming population affect the behaviour of predators, and may fuel irruptions of birds of prey such as snowy owls to areas further south.[8]

For many years, the population of lemmings was believed to change with the population cycle, but now some evidence suggests their predators' populations, particularly those of the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population.[citation needed]


Misconceptions about lemmings go back many centuries. In the 1530s, geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg proposed the theory that the creatures fell out of the sky during stormy weather[9] and then died suddenly when the grass grew in spring.[10] This description was contradicted by natural historian Ole Worm, who accepted that lemmings could fall out of the sky, but claimed that they had been brought over by the wind rather than created by spontaneous generation. Worm first published dissections of a lemming, which showed that they are anatomically similar to most other rodents such as voles and hamsters, and the work of Carl Linnaeus proved that they had a natural origin.

Lemmings have become the subject of a widely popular misconception that they commit mass suicide when they migrate by jumping off cliffs. It is not a mass suicide but the result of their migratory behavior. Driven by strong biological urges, some species of lemmings may migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. They can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capabilities to the limit. This and the unexplained fluctuations in the population of Norwegian lemmings gave rise to the misconception.

This urban myth was popularised after this behavior was staged in the Walt Disney documentary White Wilderness in 1958. However, the animals in the film are not wild animals jumping off the cliff voluntarily, rather they were bought by the producers and pushed over the edge of the cliff. The misconception itself is much older, dating back to at least the late 19th century.[11][12][13]

In popular culture and media[edit]

The misconception of lemming "mass suicide" is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. It was well enough known to be mentioned in "The Marching Morons", a 1951 short story by Cyril M. Kornbluth. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title "The Lemming with the Locket". This comic, which was inspired by a 1953 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.[14][15] Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[16] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact forced off the cliff by the camera crew.[17][18] Because of the limited number of lemmings at their disposal, which in any case were the wrong sub-species, the migration scenes were simulated using tight camera angles and a large, snow-covered turntable.[12] Lemmings also appear in Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 short story The Possessed, where their suicidal urges are attributed to the lingering consciousness of an alien group mind which had inhabited the species in the prehistoric past.[19]

This same myth was also used in the Apple Computer 1985 Super Bowl commercial "Lemmings" and the popular 1991 video game Lemmings, in which the player must stop the lemmings from mindlessly marching over cliffs or into traps.

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. This metaphor is seen many times in popular culture, such as in the video game Lemmings, in episodes of Red Dwarf, and in Adult Swim's show Robot Chicken. In the eighth episode of season 1 of Showtime's The Borgias, the Pope's second son Juan refers to the college of cardinals as lemmings when they flee the Vatican in anticipation of an impending French invasion. The Blink 182 song "Lemmings" also uses this metaphor, as does the unrelated song of the same name by English progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator (from their 1971 album Pawn Hearts), and the 1973 stage show National Lampoon's Lemmings starring John Belushi and mocking post-Woodstock groupthink. In the song "Synchronicity II" (from their 1983 album Synchronicity), The Police compare people in rush hour traffic to lemmings ("packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes / contestants in a suicidal race").[20]



  1. ^ Soininen, Eeva; Zinger, Lucie; Gielly, Ludovic; Yoccoz, Nigel; Henden, John-André; Ims, Rolf (4 April 2017). "Not only mosses: lemming winter diets as described by DNA metabarcoding". Polar Biology: 1–7. doi:10.1007/s00300-017-2114-3 – via ResearchGate.
  2. ^ Batzli, George O; Pitelka, Frank A (Nov 1983). "Nutritional Ecology of Microtine Rodents: Food Habits of Lemmings near Barrow, Alaska". Journal of Mammalogy. Vol. 64 (No. 4): 648–655.
  3. ^ Batzli, George O; Cole, F Russell (Nov 1979). "Nutritional Ecology of Microtine Rodents: Digestibility of Forage". Journal of Mammalogy. 60 (4): 740-750.
  4. ^ Peter Turchin (2003). Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical/Empirical Synthesis. Princeton University Press. p. 391. ISBN 978-0-691-09021-4.
  5. ^ (Turchin & Ellner, 1997)
  6. ^ Hinterland Who's Who – Lemmings Archived 2011-11-07 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Malte Anderson, “Lemmus lemmus: A possible case of aposematic coloration and behavior” Journal of Mammalogy, 57, no 3, Aug, 1976:461 – 469
  8. ^ Fears, Darryl (24 February 2014). "Lemmings fuel biggest snowy-owl migration in 50 years". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  9. ^ This notion is also featured in the folklore of the Inupiat and Yupik peoples at Norton Sound.
  10. ^ "Lemmings Suicide Myth". ABC Science. Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd. 27 April 2004. Archived from the original on 14 July 2007.
  11. ^ Scott, W. (November 1891). "The Monthly chronicle of North-country lore and legend: v.1–5; Mar. 1887–Dec. 1891". The Monthly chronicle of North-country lore and legend. 5: 523.
  12. ^ a b Woodford, Riley (2003). "Lemming Suicide Myth, Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior". Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Archived from the original on 2011-09-25.
  13. ^ Nicholls, Henry (21 November 2014). "BBC – Earth – The truth about Norwegian lemmings". BBC.com. BBC. Archived from the original on 3 July 2017. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
  14. ^ Lederer, Muriel. "Return of the Pied Piper". The American Mercury, Dec. 1953, pp. 33–34 Archived 2014-01-03 at the Wayback Machine..
  15. ^ Blum, Geoffrey. 1996. "One Billion of Something", in: Uncle Scrooge Adventures by Carl Barks, #9.
  16. ^ "'White Wilderness' Faked Lemming Suicides". Snopes. 12 December 2015.
  17. ^ Cruel Camera Archived 2009-01-17 at the Wayback Machine. Time slice: 14:01–15:27
  18. ^ Moss, Tyler (10 June 2013). "Do Lemmings Really Run Off Cliffs to Their Death?". Mental Floss. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014.
  19. ^ Clarke, Arthur (2001). The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. Tor Books. pp. 423–427. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  20. ^ Covach, John (2002). "Stylistic Competencies, Musical Satire, and 'This is Spinal Tap'". In Marvin, Elizabeth West; Hermann, Richardbecame. Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Since 1945: Essays and Analytic Studies. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. p. 403, note 16. ISBN 1-58046-096-8. OCLC 488555439. Archived from the original on July 3, 2014. Retrieved June 17, 2013.

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