When you think of lemmings, you are bound to think of two things: a small, round rodent and mass suicide. The reason being, we have been taught as children that lemmings often commit mass suicide. This theory originates from the late 19th century when scientists could not figure out why lemming populations seemed to spike rapidly and then fall just as fast. In 1908, a man named Arthur Mee proposed that they kill themselves, writing so in the Children’s Encyclopaedia. He posited that as an overpopulation of lemmings could devastate the European ecosystem, the lemmings were naturally controlling their own population count. His theory was backed by a documentary made in 1958 called White Wilderness that showed a footage of a herd of lemmings leaping off a cliff to their death.
However, this “fact” has a severe flaw. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. If you think about it for even a second, the thought of an animal that commits mass suicide (other than human beings) is preposterous as the species would die out. The reason why the lemming population spikes is the same as for mice and rabbits: they pride themselves in extreme reproductive abilities. A female lemming can have up to 80 babies in one year. If the population grows at such an alarming rate, then as explained above, the environment would not be able to support it. This causes the lemming population to plateau, not rising or falling, as there is not enough food to feed all the lemmings. However, due to the shortage of food, the lemmings become desperate and hungry. To find more food, the lemmings begin a migration, but the combination of hunger and being in heat causes them to act irrationally and wild. The result is a massive herd of hungry, stupid lemmings frantically running around all over the place. This leads to some lemmings accidentally slipping off cliffs and drowning in the river while swimming. This is not suicide.
Then what was the strange phenomenon of mass suicide depicted in White Wilderness? The answer is simple: it was staged. The producers tried to replicate Mee’s theory by importing a dozen lemmings and filming them running around the place. Then why did these lemmings commit suicide? Because the producers launched them off a cliff from a turntable.