AskDefine | Define lemming

Dictionary Definition

lemming n : any of various short-tailed furry-footed rodents of circumpolar distribution

User Contributed Dictionary

see Lemming




  1. Any of the small Arctic and Subarctic rodents of the tribe Lemmini. Also 3 species of voles are called lemmings.






lemming (plural lemmings or lemmingen, diminutive lemminkje)



  1. lemming.

Extensive Definition

Lemmings are small rodents, usually found in or near the Arctic, in tundra biomes. Together with the voles and muskrats, they make up the subfamily Arvicolinae (also known as Microtinae), which forms part of the largest mammal radiation by far, the superfamily Muroidea, which also includes the rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.

Description and habitat

Lemmings weigh from 30 to 112 grams (1–4 oz) and are about 7 to 15 centimetres (2.75–6 in) long. They generally have long, soft fur and very short tails. They are herbivorous, feeding mostly on leaves and shoots, grasses, and sedges in particular, but also on roots and bulbs. Like other rodents, their incisors grow continuously, allowing them to exist on much tougher forage than would otherwise be possible.
Lemmings do not hibernate through the harsh northern winter. They remain active, finding food by burrowing through the snow and utilising grasses clipped and stored in advance. They are solitary animals by nature, meeting only to mate and then going their separate ways, but like all rodents they have a high reproductive rate and can breed rapidly in good seasons.
There is little to distinguish a lemming from a vole. Most lemmings are members of the tribe Lemmini (one of the three tribes that make up the subfamily).


The behavior of lemmings is much the same as that of many other rodents which have periodic population booms and then disperse in all directions, seeking the food and shelter that their natural habitat cannot provide.
Lemmings of northern Norway are one of the few vertebrates who reproduce so quickly that their population fluctuations are chaotic, rather than following linear growth to a carrying capacity or regular oscillations. It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.
While for many years it was believed that the population of lemming predators changed with the population cycle, there is now some evidence to suggest that the predator's population may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population.

Myths and misconceptions

Misconceptions about lemmings go back many centuries. In the 1530s, the geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg proposed the theory that the creatures fell out of the sky during stormy weather (also featured in the folklore of the Inupiat/Yupik at Norton Sound), and then died suddenly when the grass grew in spring. This was refuted by the natural historian Ole Worm, who first published dissections of a lemming, and showed that lemmings are anatomically similar to most other rodents.
While many people believe that lemmings commit mass suicide when they migrate, this is not the case. Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can and do swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. On occasion, and particularly in the case of the Norway lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming, sometimes to exhaustion and death. Lemmings are also often pushed into the sea as more and more lemmings arrive at the shore.
The myth of lemming mass suicide is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title: The Lemming with the Locket. This comic, which was inspired by a 1954 National Geographic article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.. The suicide myth was further propagated by Walt Disney documentary White Wilderness in 1958 which includes footage of lemmings migrating and running head-long over a ledge. An investigation in 1983 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Brian Vallee, showed that the Disney film makers faked the entire sequence using imported lemmings (bought from Inuit children), a snow covered turntable on which a few dozen lemmings were forced to run, and literally throwing lemmings into the sea to show the alleged suicides. This myth is also witnessed in a German film - The Little Polar Bear (Lars, the polar bear)--in which a group of despondent lemmings are frequently jumping off various ledges.
Due to their association with this odd behaviour, lemming suicide is a frequently-used metaphor in reference to people who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences. This is the theme of the video game Lemmings, where the player attempts to save the mindlessly marching rodents from walking to their deaths.



External links

  • article by Nils Christian Stenseth on the population cycles of lemmings and other northern rodents.
    • See also [ The Lemming Cycle, in HTML format].
  • Article about Collared Lemming, see also the main page on Alaskan mammals
  • Rebuttal of lemming suicide:
lemming in German: Lemminge
lemming in Spanish: Lemming
lemming in French: Lemming
lemming in Korean: 레밍
lemming in Italian: Lemming
lemming in Hebrew: למינג
lemming in Dutch: Lemmingen
lemming in Norwegian: Lemen
lemming in Polish: Leming
lemming in Portuguese: Lêmingue
lemming in Russian: Лемминг
lemming in Finnish: Sopulit
lemming in Swedish: Lämmel
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