The Debunker: Do Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide?

by Ken Jennings

It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.

The Debunker: Do Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide?

Chances are you know only one thing about the tiny rodents called lemmings: that they jump off cliffs to their watery deaths during migrations. This behavior is the only reason video games get made about lemmings. It’s their only cultural relevance whatsoever. They’re lucky, I suppose. Most of their cousins, like voles and marmots, have no metaphorical function in modern discourse whatsoever.

lemming

Unfortunately for you (but fortunately for the lemmings), the one thing you know about them is wrong. The myth about lemming suicide plunges is over sixty years old, but it’s bogus. The State of Alaska has a whole website on the subject (okay…) in which a zoologist blames the myth on the lemmings’ migratory behavior. The tiny mammals do move in large groups, and when the group reaches a natural barrier, like an icy river, a few lead lemmings may be inadvertently swept into the current by the rest of the pack. But that’s not the kind of kamikaze behavior we think of as classically “lemming-like.” It’s a tragic accident. In rock star terms: a “Brian Jones” rather than a “Kurt Cobain.”

A whole generation of nature buffs got its lemming knowledge from a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness, which did indeed depict a pack of lemmings running across the Canadian snow and then leaping to their deaths in the ocean. “Over they go,” laments the narrator, “casting themselves out bodily into space!” In fact, a 1983 investigation by a Canadian TV producer revealed that the scenes (shot in landlocked Alberta!) had been faked. The lemmings in a “migrating” frenzy were actually being spun on a snowy turntable. And the ones seen “jumping” had actually been thrown off a cliff by a documentary crew! Wow. Say what you want about the manipulations of modern reality TV, but at least The Bachelor never threw dozens of women off a helicopter to their deaths.

Quick Quiz: DMA Design, the company that sold 20 million Lemmings video games in the 1990s, has had even more success since 1997, the year that it created what other game franchise?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.