Thursday, October 05, 2006

Lemmicide

Thursday, October 05, 2006

'Cos I'm dead clever I've known for a long time that the popularly held belief that lemmings commit mass suicide as a means of self-regulated population control is a myth. What I wasn't aware of until now is the origin of this legend.

As it happens it's all Walt Disney's fault - well more accurately it's the fault of people who watched the 1958 Disney nature documentary 'White Wilderness' and didn't listen to the narration carefully enough.

The film depicts a herd of lemmings mindlessly plunging over the edge of a cliff and into the 'sea'. Despite being good swimmers, the critters are unable to battle against the 'tide' indefinitely - rendered immobile through exhaustion they eventually drown and are seen floating in a watery grave.

The rodents' behaviour wasn't captured in-situ, the 'sea' was really a lake in Canada and their leap of doom was all staged - the poor creatures were actually hurled to their deaths by the producers. Nice, though we shouldn't be too surprised considering how the same animation house dispatched Bambi's mum more than 20 years earlier.

As interesting as this is, the film has been misinterpreted. The narrator refers to the lemmings' compulsion to keep moving, not to engage in hari-kari. Their goal is to migrate away from their current densely populated habitat where food and space are scarce. They dive bomb en bloc into the 'sea' because they have poor eyesight and so mistake it for a lake which they would otherwise easily be able to cross on their pilgrimage to the Great Valley (TM).

"...and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide and destruction of a species it would seem to be", the film concludes.

This is the answer to the opening precis:-

"In this land of many mysteries it's a strange fact the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures. One of these is a mousy little rodent called the lemming. Here's an actual living legend. For it's said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the arctic and as often happens in man's nature lore it's a story both true and false as we shall see in a moment."

It doesn't mean an avalanche of suicidal lemmings intentionally sacrifice themselves to allow the Chosen Few to stretch their legs and swing a cat or two.

You can watch the critical segment of the film here and read more about the mockumentary here.

1 comments:

John

I have to say that given the entire scene was staged by the film crew and that the lemmings were physically thrown from the cliff, it doesn't matter a great deal what the narration says. Clearly the film-makers were trying to imply that this is natural behaviour or else they wouldn't have staged the scene in the first place.

 
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