Why a 1958 Disney Film Is to Blame for a Bizarre Myth About Lemmings

Next time someone calls you a lemming, you can school them with your encyclopedic knowledge of arctic rodents.

Do-Lemmings-Really-Kill-Themselves-En-Masse--3271144a-FLPA_REX_ShutterstockFLPA/REX/ShutterstockIf you’re a lemming, you’re a follower. Calling someone a lemming is like calling them a sheep, but with more zeal. Calling someone a lemming implies dedication to such a severe degree, that they would probably jump off a cliff in order to continue to follow an idea or a person in every way possible. Lemmings had this association because they had a tendency to follow each other off cliffs, executing the only regularly committed mass animal suicide documented in history.

Or so it the legend goes. But in reality, do lemmings actually commit mass suicide? No, so says the Encyclopedia Brittanica, they do not. Although it is understandable why people may believe they do.

Every three or four years, lemmings experience huge population booms and seeing as they migrate in herds and live in climates with seaside cliffs, accidents will happen. With all the small rodents jostling for position from a high place, a few might get bumped off, seemingly committing suicide en masse.

But this falsehood continued to be circulated and was later confirmed by concrete video evidence, seemingly. When the Academy Award-winning 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness was released, there appeared to be incontrovertible evidence that lemmings habitually heaved themselves off cliffs in large groups.

However, it was later revealed that the filmmakers staged the footage, forcing dozens of lemmings to dive to their dooms—a cruel trick which convinced droves of viewers of the false nature notion and helped the myth persist.

Also, Lemmings, a 1991 computer puzzle video game, didn’t help. The sole purpose of the game is to prevent lemmings from killing themselves. (Want to figure out a puzzle that doesn’t involve dead rodents? Try finding the turtle in the illustration or the snake in this photo.)

[Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica]