Origins: Some of the most memorable scenes in White Wilderness, Disney's 1958 Academy Award-winning "True-Life Adventure" nature documentary about wildlife in the snowy northern portions of the North American continent, were ones featuring the death of lemmings who drowned after jumping off cliffs and into the sea. But the scenes shown in the documentary were staged by filmmakers in order to replicate supposed real-life behavior of lemmings that could not be captured on film, and thus did Disney perpetuate for generations to come the legend of periodic, inexplicable mass suicides by lemmings who die by hurling themselves off of cliffs.
The narration in the film accompanying the lemmings scenes begins as follows:
Nonetheless, the narration strongly suggests that the behavior shown in the film is a form of unreasoning, compulsive march to death in which lemmings typically engage:
Nine different photographers spent three years shooting and assembling footage for the various segments that comprise White Wilderness, and it is not known whether Walt Disney approved or was aware of the activities of
Lemmings do not periodically hurl themselves off cliffs and into the sea. Cyclical explosions in population do occasionally induce lemmings to attempt to migrate to areas of lesser population density, and when such migrations occur, some lemmings do die by falling over cliffs or drowning in lakes or rivers. These deaths are neither acts of "suicide" nor the result of compulsive unreasoning behavior, however; they're accidental deaths resulting from lemmings' venturing into unfamiliar territories and being crowded and pushed over dangerous ledges or venturing into the water in a quest to reach new territory.
As the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted in an article about this myth:
Lemming populations fluctuate enormously based on predators, food, climate and other factors. Under ideal conditions, in a single year a population of voles can increase by a factor of ten. When they've exhausted the local food supply, they disperse, as do moose, beaver and many other animals.
Lemmings can swim and will cross bodies of water in their quest for greener pastures. Sometimes they drown. Dispersal and accidental death is a far cry from the instinctive, deliberate mass suicide depicted in "White Wilderness," but [the White Wilderness narrator] explains that life is tough in the lemmings' "weird world of frozen chaos." The voice-over implies that lemmings take the plunge every seven to ten years to alleviate overpopulation.
"What people see is essentially mass dispersal," said zoologist Gordon Jarrell, an expert in small mammals with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Sometimes it's pretty directional. The classic example is in the Scandinavian mountains, where (lemmings) have been dramatically observed. They will come to a body of water and be temporarily stopped, and eventually they'll build up along the shore so dense and they will swim across. If they get wet to the skin, they're essentially dead."
Jarrell said when people learn that he works with lemmings, the mass suicide issue often comes up.
Burnam, Tom. More Misinformation. New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980. ISBN 0-690-01685-9 (p. 140). Charle, Suzanne. "Television; Hunting Wildlife with a Movie Camera." The New York Times. 13 March 1988 (p. B31). Corry, John. "'Cruel Camera', About Animal Abuse." The New York Times. 24 March 1986 (p. C18). Ferry, Jon. "Lemmings Commit Mass Murder, Not Mass Suicide." Reuters. 6 March 1992. Foreman, Judy. "How & Why." The Boston Globe. 7 March 1994 (p. 30). Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. Crown: New York, 1984. ISBN 0-517-55407-0 (pp. 148-149). Poundstone, William. Bigger Secrets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986. ISBN 0-395-53008-3 (pp. 235-236). Sagi, Douglas. "Scientists Demolish Lemming Legends." The Vancouver Sun. 21 February 1992 (Diary; p. D2). Woodford, Riley. "Lemming Suicide Myth -- Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior." Alaska Fish & Wildlife News. September 2003.