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Home U.S.A The character of the Norwegian lemming: 'bloodthirsty, furry berserkers' | Helen Sullivan

The character of the Norwegian lemming: ‘bloodthirsty, furry berserkers’ | Helen Sullivan


A Norwegian lemming appears like a bigger, barely cleverer and way more irate hamster. Their underside fur is biscuit-coloured. On prime they put on a mottled calico.

The BBC, in a 2015 documentary episode by which a lemming repeatedly prices a full-sized home cat – after which assaults the rock on to which the home cat has leapt in concern – referred to as them “bloodthirsty, furry berserkers”.

“They’ve been recognized,” we’re advised because the display reveals a lemming, surrounded by plum-coloured leaves, baring its rodent tooth and squeak-barking on the digital camera, “to kill weasels and combat off skua.” (Skua are aggressive, seagull-like birds.)

Wait. Aren’t lemmings so meek and silly that they march en masse to their deaths, throwing themselves off cliffs with out a thought?

Because it seems, no: lemmings “appearing like lemmings” is a fantasy, as Sonia Shah explains in her guide, The Subsequent Nice Migration. Lemmings don’t practise mass suicide by leaping into the ocean. When requested to hitch the loss of life cult, they squeak-bark, “No!” They refuse the poisoned Kool-Assist.

Lemmings reside in tunnels below the snow, sleeping in cosy nests of grass, feathers and musk ox wool. Their younger are bred in a layer of air fashioned by heat floor melting the snow simply above it, referred to as the “subnivean house”.

When the snow melts in summer season, it floods their burrows they usually emerge – the inspiration for one more fantasy, that they plop down miraculously from the sky – blink their eyes on the blurry Nordic solar, and start to maneuver, like a number of Roombas over which somebody has thrown a grisly fur coat, hoovering up each sedge, grass and moss frond in sight.

“What had been these mice that we couldn’t conquer them?” requested the poet Oscar Brynes in 1934.

Little that’s edible stands within the lemmings’ method, and “Of their flip they’re pursued and harassed by crowds of beasts and birds of prey, bears, wolves, foxes, canines, wild cats, stoats, weasels, eagles, hawks, and owls,” in keeping with the 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Even home animals corresponding to cattle, goats and reindeer be a part of within the destruction, stamping them to the bottom with their toes.”

The fearless Norwegian lemming. {Photograph}: Juniors Bildarchiv/Alamy

The place are they marching? In direction of the ocean searching for the misplaced metropolis of Atlantis, their drowned house? Each few years, their inhabitants grows by a lot (1,000 fold) {that a} group of them – one can think about the chosen ones spitting with fury below their breath that they must be the lemmings to do it – separates from the remainder of the group and migrates. They’re good swimmers however generally misjudge the breadth of the chilly water and drown.

The collective suicide fantasy persists as a result of Disney staged one within the 1958 documentary White Wilderness. As somebody off-screen ideas a number of imported lemmings off a riverbank in Canada, the bloodthirsty voiceover narrates: “Tiny avalanches of soil and rocks – and seemingly indestructible lemmings.”

The lemmings didn’t leap – they had been pushed.

Within the kids’s story, Learn the Ebook, Lemmings, the lemmings maintain leaping into the ocean as a result of they assume it’s what they’re meant to do. If solely they’d learn the guide they’d be taught that they don’t seem to be pushed unstoppably in direction of loss of life.

It’s a sobering thought for anybody: that studying simply the best guide would possibly cease us taking issues fairly so significantly, getting fairly so labored up at home cats, flinging ourselves off the precipice fairly so usually. There’s a pocket of air between the chilly snow and the nice and cozy floor the place a lot of life may be gentle and humorous, in case you let it.

Folks would possibly nonetheless be saved from actually exploding with anger, as some consider lemmings do. It’s unlikely for Lemmus lemmus. The BBC, once more: “An individual strolling throughout the meadow would trigger the lemmings, a number of metres away, to present themselves away by unexpectedly shrieking and leaping about,” they quote a bunch of researchers as writing.

“Even the farm tractor was greeted on this method, leaving a path of infuriated lemmings behind.”

“The Nature of …” is a column devoted to attention-grabbing animals, bugs, vegetation and pure phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or significantly vigorous plant you assume would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or by way of electronic mail: helen.sullivan@theguardian.com



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