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What are Lemmings?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 July 2014
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Lemmings are small Arctic rodents that, despite their tiny size, are able to survive the harsh winter weather without hibernating. They are most closely related to voles and muskrats, and share much in common with hamsters, and gerbils. There are actually numerous types of lemmings, most with dark brown or light brown and black colored fur. People compare them to chipmunks in appearance.

The average lemming is about one to four ounces (28.34-113.4) in weight. Body length can vary between two to six inches (5.08-15.24 cm). Like hamsters, they have very small tails, almost non-existent. Also like many rodents, they must chew constantly to keep their teeth, which continuously grow, at a reasonable size. Lemmings achieve this teeth-filing through their herbivorous diet, which is composed of grasses, and roots.

Since lemmings do not hibernate, they exhibit food-storing behavior. They save portions of the food they collect during the milder months to consume during winter. They’re also adept at burrowing into snow to get tender young grasses that are buried there, increasing their winter food supply.

Misconceptions about lemmings have existed for numbers of years. They reproduce at extremely quick rates, causing some people in Northern European countries, as far back as the 16th century, to believe lemmings simply were created out of air. While this myth has, of course, faded over time, lemmings have been condemned as stupid because of legends that exist about mass suicides.

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Actually, lemmings do not commit mass suicide. When together yearly for migration, which is actually a short time, lemmings do occasionally fall off cliffs or get drowned, but not en masse. The urban legend surrounding lemming suicide arose from a documentary produced by Disney in 1958, White Wilderness. The film depicts an incidence of mass suicide by lemmings.

The filmmakers were completely responsible for the deaths of the lemmings filmed. They captured a few dozen, used “the magic of Disney” to make it seem like more, and then chased the lemmings off the cliff. Presented in “documentary” form, the lemmings mass suicide myth has persisted, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, in most cases, animal rights groups would not permit such an instance of animal cruelty to be perpetuated today.

Despite this bad and undeserved reputation of lemmings, they are rather enjoyed by people. They’re not likely to be encountered in mass groups, since they tend to live in solitary burrows, coming together only for mating and migration. Although not all states or countries permit it, some lemmings are kept as pets, where they’re compared in behavior to hamsters.

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