This is the story of a mythological animal. The animal itself is real, but the myth surrounding it is a species unto itself.
Lemmings are hamster-like rodents which live around the Arctic Circle in North America, Europe and Asia. They’re most notable for their fecundity — a female can produce litters of eight pups every five weeks — and for sustaining every carnivore in the Arctic. They don’t hibernate, but tunnel through the snow in the winter, ensuring that foxes, wolverines, snowy owls, ermines, lynxes, and wolves have a steady supply of food through the white months. Let’s be frank: Lemmings are the Tribbles of the Arctic. They are a fast-multiplying, too-cute food source, the ecological equivalent of tater tots. Sure, the species exists for its own purposes as well. But perhaps my carnivore allegiances are showing when I say that lemmings are a species that exists to be eaten. Without them, the Arctic ecosystem would collapse.
But one thing lemmings don’t do is commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. Every four years or so, the local lemming population goes into a sudden decline as the lemmings migrate to new territory in search of food. Along the way, they usually encounter bodies of water, and try to go around them. If they can’t, they’ll try to swim across them, and inevitably many of them drown. But the idea that lemmings are hard-wired to control their own booming populations by throwing themselves into the sea is ridiculous, the stuff of medieval legend. Yet that is the animal we know today, and it’s worth examining the mythological lemming. It teaches us much about ourselves.