Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Lemming

LEMMING, a small animal belonging to the order Rodentia, family Muridæ, and subfamily Arvicolinæ, or voles, of which the common water-rat and short-tailed field mouse of England are members. It is the Myodes lemmus (Linn.) of most modern zoological systems, the Lemmus norvegicus of Desmarest and some other authors.

EB9 Lemming.jpg


In both size and colour different specimens vary considerably, but its usual length is about five inches, and its soft fur yellowish-brown, marked with spots of dark brown and black. It has a short, rounded head, obtuse muzzle, small bead-like eyes, and short rounded ears, nearly concealed by the fur. The tail is very short. The feet are small, each with five claws, those of the fore feet strongest, and fitted for scratching and digging. The usual dwelling place of the lemmings is in the high lands or fells of the great central mountain chain of Norway and Sweden, from the southern branches of the Langfjeldene in Christiansand stift to the North Cape and the Varangerfjord. South of the Arctic circle they are, under ordinary circumstances, exclusively confined to the plateaus covered with dwarf birch and juniper above the conifer region, though in Tromsö amt and in Finmarken they occur in all suitable localities down to the level of the sea. The nest is formed under a tussock of grass or a stone, and constructed of short dry straws, and usually lined with hair. The number of young in each nest is generally five, sometimes only three, occasionally seven or eight, and at least two broods are produced annually. Their food is entirely vegetable, especially grass roots and stalks, shoots of the dwarf birch, reindeer lichens, and mosses, in search of which they form, in winter, long galleries through the turf or under the snow. They are restless, courageous, and pugnacious little animals. When suddenly disturbed, instead of trying to escape they will sit upright, with their back against a stone or other coign of vantage, hissing and showing fight in a very determined manner.

The circumstance which has given more popular interest to the lemming than to a host of other species of the same order of animals, and has justified its treatment in a separate article in this work, is that certain districts of the cultivated lands of Norway and Sweden, where in ordinary circumstances they are quite unknown, are occasionally and at very uncertain intervals varying from five to twenty or more years, literally overrun by an army of these little creatures, which steadily and slowly advance, always in the same direction, and regardless of all obstacles, swimming across streams and even lakes of several miles in breadth, and committing considerable devastation on their line of march by the quantity of food they consume. In their turn they are pursued and harassed by crowds of beasts and birds of prey, as bears, wolves, foxes, dogs, wild cats, stoats, weasels, eagles, hawks, and owls, and never spared by man; even the domestic animals not usually predaceous, as cattle, goats, and reindeer, are said to join in the destruction, stamping them to the ground with their feet, and even eating their bodies. Numbers also die from diseases produced apparently from overcrowding. None ever return by the course by which they came, and the onward march of the survivors never ceases until they reach the sea, into which they plunge, and swimming onwards in the same direction as before perish in the waves. These extraordinary and sudden appearances of vast bodies of lemmings, and their singular habit of persistently pursuing the same onward course of migration, have given rise to various speculations, from the ancient belief of the Norwegian peasants, shared in by Olaus Magnus, that they fall down from the clouds, to the almost equally untenable hypothesis, ingeniously maintained by the late Mr W. D. Crotch, that they are acting in these migrations in obedience to an instinct inherited from vastly ancient times, and are still seeking the congenial home in the submerged Atlantis, to which their ancestors of the Miocene period were wont to resort when driven from their ordinary dwelling places by crowding or scarcity of food. The principal really ascertained facts regarding these migrations, as stated by Mr R. Collett (Proceedings of the Linnean Society, vol. xiii. p. 327, 1878), seem to be as follows. When any combination of circumstances has occasioned an increase of the numbers of the lemmings in their ordinary dwelling places, impelled by the restless or migratory instinct possessed in a less developed degree by so many of their congeners, a movement takes place at the edge of the elevated plateau, and a migration towards the lower-lying land begins. The whole body moves forward slowly, always advancing in the same general direction in which they originally started, but following more or less the course of the great valleys. They only travel by night; and, staying in congenial places for considerable periods, with unaccustomed abundance of provender, notwithstanding all the destructive influences to which they are exposed, they multiply excessively during their journey, having still more numerous families and more frequently than in their usual homes. The progress may last from one to three years, according to the route taken, and the distance to be traversed until the sea-coast is reached, which in a country so surrounded by water as the Scandinavian peninsula must be the ultimate goal of such a journey. This may be either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Bothnia, according as the migration has commenced from the west or the east side of the central elevated plateau. Those that finally perish in the sea, committing what appears to be a voluntary suicide, are only acting under the same blind impulse which has led them previously to cross smaller pieces of water with safety. Further information about the migrations of the lemming will be found in Mr Collett's paper referred to above, and also in those of Mr Crotch in the same volume. (W. H. F.)