The old myth about lemmings that commit mass suicide is a deeply ingrained in our culture.
The metaphor of lemmings following the crowd to their death is so good that it’s even used by people who know better. The reality is that lemmings don’t commit mass suicide. Not even the really depressed ones.
Not that many people would care if they did, though. They’re nasty little vole-like vegetarians that reproduce like rabbits, popping out as many as thirteen babies every three weeks.
There are other breeds of lemmings, including one that lives in bogs in the eastern United States and Canada, but the most famous is the Norway lemming, which lives in the tundra and grasslands of Scandinavia. These are the ones that are allegedly suicidal. However, in reality, that’s wishful thinking, they are actually homicidal.
In the warm spring when grass is plentiful, the lemming population rises at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. By summer, desperation kicks in as food supplies dwindle, and things turn ugly. Adults fight to the death for breeding territory; lemming moms raid the nests of their neighbors and kill their neighbors’ young.
Still, all this carnage isn’t enough, and the animals must disperse in search of food and living space. They don’t formally migrate en masse, it just looks that way.
“A booming population of near-sighted, physically clumsy rodents stumbling down Norway’s numerous funnel-shaped gullies is what produced the massive migration look,” says an article in Canadian Geographic.
While a number of lemmings may accidentally fall over the edge of a narrow mountain path or get washed away while fording fjords and streams, they don’t intentionally kill themselves.
Actually, most of the lemmings that die along the way are eaten by predators taking advantage of the free protein that just happened to amble by.