A northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis) is seen in northern Ontario. Photo courtesy of jwboreal/GBIF

It may or may not surprise you to learn that we have lemmings in Maine.

Our two species are the northern bog lemming and southern bog lemming. The northern bog lemming lives mainly in a swath of subarctic North America running from Alaska through the middle of Canada to Québec, including the Gaspé Peninsula and southwesterly into Maine and New Hampshire. Northern bog lemmings have been seen rarely in Baxter State Park and the western part of the state. The southern bog lemming lives in the eastern half of the continental range, and farther south into the Midwest.

Lemmings are rodents, cousins of voles, shrews and mice. They live in low, wet areas, including moist sphagnum moss. They eat grasses and sedges, among other vegetable matter. Our two species are so rarely seen here that not much is known about them. The northern bog lemming is listed as threatened on Maine’s Endangered & Threatened Wildlife list.

I turned up this information after thinking about lemmings committing mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. There are some strange processes in nature — such as the wasp larva that injects a psychotropic drug into a spider to induce the spider to build a completely uncharacteristic web out of its dragline silk, and then uses that web for its cocoon. But this thing about lemming suicide, which has become a sort of cultural cliché for oblivious mass self-destructive behavior (“drink the Kool-Aid”) always seemed particularly strange. Knowing no better, I just kind of obliviously accepted it as a weird fact of nature, though.

Funny story.

This thing about lemmings jumping off cliffs during migrations is made up. Lemmings do not throw themselves off cliffs. They don’t even migrate.

Like a lot of animals, they do move around in response to habitat and population conditions. In Scandinavian species, for example, their populations tend to rise and fall over six- to eight-year periods. When their area is no longer sustaining their population, they move off to find a better situation. They’re not generally gregarious, but when they move they often go in groups.

These groups of lemmings looking for a new home sometimes come up against natural barriers, such as rivers, lakes, an ocean, maybe even a cliff, though that seems conjectural. The group gets stopped there, and can accumulate on a riverbank, trying to figure out what to do. Lemmings can swim, and so sometimes they decide to swim the river or lake. Soaked through to the skin and cold, not all of them make it to the other side.

Some accounts of lemming “migrations” given by 19th century naturalists in Scandinavia use hyperbolical color modifiers like “suicidal” to describe lemmings dying while swimming, and at least one note seems to vaguely imply that lemmings may fall from mountains during their searches for new habitat. Such reports may have given rise to a natural history rumor over the first half of the 20th century that lemmings have mass-suicidal tendencies.

So in the mid-1950s, a Disney film crew was in Alberta province, Canada (where there are no lemmings) filming a segment for their “True Life Adventure” series. They apparently bought about 20 lemmings from some Inuit kids in the province of Manitoba, brought them (the lemmings, not the kids) back to Alberta, set up their cameras to get tight shots of a low cliff overlooking a river, rolled the cameras and flung the lemmings off the cliff. Then for the film they made up a story about migrating lemmings throwing themselves en masse off cliffs.

I don’t remember seeing that film. But by the time I was in about the sixth grade, I thought migrating lemmings periodically commit mass suicide, and nonchalantly carried the notion with me afterward.

You’d think Disney, of all entertainment media, would not be spreading false information — what we now call disinformation, which is the polite technical term for a deliberate lie. When disinformation is passed along by people who think it’s true, or want to think it’s true, the disinformation is called misinformation.

If I ever told someone lemmings commit mass suicide, I was misinforming them; I was not lying or out of my mind, just shamefully ignorant. The Disney crew, however, deliberately created and spread a public lie.

There are laws that limit the lying you can do in public, but they’re contextual and tricky. In some recent cases, liars admitted they were lying about widespread election fraud, but argued that their lies were so outrageous, no reasonable person would believe them and so no harm could be done. (A “reasonable person” is a fiction used in the law to define what someone in their right mind could reasonably be expected to do in any given situation.) In other recent cases, it was argued that lies that sound like news but are intended (allegedly) as entertainment, are not actually disinformation that harms anyone, they’re just lies, like the made-up story about the lemmings. The courts agreed.

Good old Disney. Probably the film crew’s disinformation was not harmful. They were just using their psychotropic media techniques for entertainment and the lie unexpectedly got out of control.

Kind of makes you wonder what’s going to happen when the people who believe these recent lies finally reach the natural barrier of reality, and start jumping.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His new book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: