Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/The Norwegian Lemming and its Migrations

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PSM V11 D400 Lemmings in migration.jpg


AMONG the many marvelous stories which are told of the Norwegian lemming (Myodes lemmus, Linn.), there is one which seems so directly to point to a lost page in the history of the world, that it is worth a consideration which it appears hitherto to have escaped. I allude to the remarkable fact that every member of the vast swarms which periodically almost devastate Norway perishes voluntarily, or at least instinctively, in the ocean. But as among my readers some may not be familiar with the lemming, a brief description of the animal itself will not be out of place. It is a vole, like our short-tailed field-mouse, very variable in size and color, but the figures (Fig. 1), which are about half the natural size, will be found to resemble the majority in the latter respect. The claws, especially on the fore-foot, are strong and curved; the tail is very short, the ears scarcely visible, and the bead-like, black eyes seem always to notice objects above them rather than those in any other direction. During the summer these animals form their nests under stones, usually betraying their habitations by the very care which they take to keep them

PSM V11 D421 Group of lemmings.jpg
Fig. 1.—Group of Lemmings.

sweet and clean. In winter, however, they form long galleries through the turf and under the snow in search of their food, which is exclusively vegetable; and it is at this time that those ravages are caused which have led the Norwegians in former times to institute a special form of prayer against their invasions. There are several species of lemming, easily recognizable, and with well-marked geographical range; but it is to the Scandinavian species only that the following old description applies: "It lives on the shoots of the dwarf-birch, reindeer lichens, and other mosses; it hisses and bites; in winter it runs under the snow; and about every tenth year, especially before an extremely severe winter, the whole army of animals, in the autumn and at night, migrates in a direct line." According to Olaus Magnus they fall from the clouds; and Pennant narrates that "they descend from the Kjölen, marching in parallel lines three feet apart; they traverse Nordland and Finmark, cross lakes and rivers, and gnaw through hay and corn stacks rather than go round. They infect the ground, and the cattle perish which taste of the grass they have touched; nothing stops them—neither fire, torrents, lakes, nor morasses. The greatest rock gives them but a slight check; they go round it, and then resume their march directly without the least division. If they meet a peasant they persist in their course, and jump as high as his knees in defense of their progress. They are so fierce as to lay hold of a stick and suffer themselves to be swung about before they quit their hold. If struck they turn about and bite, and will make a noise like a dog. Foxes, lynxes, and ermines, follow them in great numbers, and at length they perish, either through want of food or by destroying one another, or in some great water, or in the sea. They are the dread of the country, and in former times spiritual weapons were exerted against them; the priest exorcised them, and had a long form of prayer to arrest the evil. Happily it does not occur frequently—once or twice only in twenty years. It seems like a vast colony of emigrants from a nation overstocked, a discharge of animals from the northern hive which once poured forth its myriads of human beings upon Southern Europe. They do not form any magazine for winter provision, by which improvidence, it seems, they are compelled to make their summer migration in certain years, urged by hunger. They are not poisonous, as vulgarly reported, for they are often eaten by the Laplanders, who compare their flesh to that of squirrels."

M. Guyon disposes of the theory that these migrations are influenced by approaching, severe weather, since the one witnessed by himself took place in the spring; also the superabundance of food during the previous autumn precluded all idea of starvation. He therefore adopts a third view, that excessive multiplication in certain years necessitates emigration, and that this follows a descending course, like the mountain-streams, till at length the ocean is reached. Mr. R. Collett, a Norwegian naturalist, writes that in November, 1868, a ship sailed for fifteen hours through a swarm of lemmings, which extended as far over the Trondhjems-fjord as the eye could reach.

I will now relate my own experience of the lemming during three migrations in Norway, and in a state of captivity in England. The situation of Heimdalen, where I reside during the summer months, is peculiarly well suited for observation of their migrations, lying as it does at an elevation of 3,000 feet, and immediately under the highest mountains in Scandinavia; and yet, excepting during migration, I have never seen or been able to procure a specimen. It was in the autumn of 1867 that I first heard the peculiar cry of the lemming, guided by which I soon found the pretty animal backed up by a stone, against which it incessantly jerked its body in passionate leaps of rage, all the while uttering a shrill note of defiance. The black, bead-like eyes seemed starting from their sockets, and the teeth shone white in the sunlight. I hastily snatched at the savage little creature, but it sprang completely round, fastened its teeth sharply in my hand, and taking advantage of my surprise escaped under a large stone, whence I could not dislodge it. A Norwegian friend who accompanied me by no means shared my feelings of satisfaction at the sight of a lemming. "We shall have a severe winter and no grass next spring, owing to those children of Satan!" was his comment on the event. However, it was many a month before I saw another; then, on lifting a flat stone, I found six in a nest of dried grass, blind, and apparently but just born. In a few days the whole field became swarming with these pretty voles; at the same time white and blue foxes made their appearance, and snowy owls and many species of hawks became abundant. My dogs, too, were annoyed by the rash courage of the new-comers, which would jump at their noses even when slowly drawing on game, so that they never spared a lemming, though they never ate them till last year, when I observed that they would eat their heads only, rejecting the body, although they devoured the common field-mouse to the end of his tail. As the season advanced and snow covered the ground, the footprints and headless carcasses told plainly how hard it must be for a lemming to preserve its life, although there can be no doubt that its inherent pugnacity is its worst enemy. In this country we fail to conceive how much active life goes on beneath the snow, which in more northern latitudes forms a warm roof to numerous birds, quadrupeds, and insects, which are thus enabled to secure an otherwise impossible sustenance. At the same time, as I have already noticed, a fearful struggle for existence is carried on during the long autumnal nights, before the snow has become a protection rather than a new source of danger to all save predaceous animals. It was a curious sight, when the whole visible landscape was an unbroken whiteness, to see a dark form suddenly spring from the surface and scurry over the snow, and again vanish. I found that some of the holes by means of which this feat was executed were at least five feet in depth, yet even here was no safety, for the reindeer often kill the lemmings by stamping on them, though I do not believe their bodies are ever eaten.

During the autumn I noticed no migration, or rather there was only an immigration from some point to the eastward, and in the subsequent migrations of 1870-'71, and 1875-'76, I still found the same state of things. The animals arrived during early autumn, and immediately began to breed; there was no procession, no serried bands undeterred by obstacles, but there was an invasion of temporary settlers, which were speedily shut out from human view by the snow, and it was not till the following summer that the army, reënforced by five or six generations, went out to perish like the hosts of Pharaoh. On calm mornings my lake, which is a mile in width, was often thickly studded with swimming lemmings, every head pointing westward; but I observed that when my boat came near enough to frighten them they would lose all idea of direction, and frequently swim back to the bank they had left. When the least wind ruffled the water every swimmer was drowned; and never did frailer barks tempt a more treacherous sea, as the wind swept daily down the valley, and wrecked all who were then afloat. It is impossible not to feel pity for these self-haunted fugitives. A mere cloud passing over the sun affrighted them; the approach of horse, cow, dog, or man, alike roused their impotent anger, and their little bodies were convulsively pressed against the never-failing stone of vantage (see Fig. 1), while they uttered cries of rage. I collected 500 skins, with the idea of making a rug, but was surprised to find that a portion of the rump was nearly always denuded of hair, and it was long before I discovered that this was caused by the habit of nervously backing up against a stone, of which I have just spoken. As this action is excited by every appearance of an enemy, it seems surprising that a natural callosity should not take the place of so constant a lesion; possibly, however, the time during which this lesion occurs is too short to cause constitutional change.

Early in the autumn, and just a year after their arrival at Heimdalen, the western migration commenced anew. Every morning I found swarms of lemmings swimming the lake diagonally, instead of diverging from their course so as to go round it, and mounting the steep slopes of Heimdals-lö (Figs. 2 and 3) on their way to the coast,

PSM V11 D424 Lemming migration plan.jpg
Fig. 2.—Plan of Heimdalen drawn to scale, in which the course of the Lemmings, indicated by the arrows, is seen to crops Lake Heimdalsvand and the swift river Leirungen, both of which might be avoided by a slight détour. The river is of glacier origin, very cold and very rapid.

where the harassed crowd, thinned by the unceasing attacks of the wolf, the fox, and the dog, and even the reindeer, pursued by eagle, hawk, and owl (see frontispiece), and never spared by man himself, yet still a vast multitude, plunges into the Atlantic Ocean on the first calm day, and perishes with its front still pointing westward. No faint heart lingers on the way; and no survivor returns to the mountains.

There appears to have been a difficulty in keeping these restless creatures in captivity, both because they escape through incredibly small apertures (generally, however, dying from internal injuries thus caused), and because they will gnaw through a stout wooden cage in one night, and devote every spare moment to this one purpose, with a pertinacity worthy of Baron Trenck. At all events, few have been brought alive to this country, and none have survived. At present (February, 1877) I have one which I have preserved since September last, defeating his attempts at escape by lining the cage with tin, and allowing him a plentiful supply of fresh water, in which he is always dabbling. With the approach of winter all his attempts to escape ceased, and I now always take the little stranger for an airing in my closed hands while his bed is being made and his room cleaned out. He seems to like this, but after a few minutes a gentle nibble at my finger testifies to his impatience; and if this be not attended to, the

PSM V11 D425 Tracking Lemming migration.jpg
Fig. 3.—Section of Heimdalen showing the Lemmings' track, which does not follow the watershed.

biting progresses in a crescendo scale until it becomes unbearable, although it has never under these circumstances drawn blood. My little prisoner shows few other signs of tameness, but the fits of jumping, biting, and snarling rage have almost ceased. I expect, however, that, with the return of spring, the migratory impulse will be renewed, and that he will kill himself against the wires of his cage like a swallow.

The reader is now in a position to consider the three questions raised by the above facts, and those questions are as follow: 1. Whence do the lemmings come? 2. Whither do they go? 3. Why do they migrate at all? With regard to the first, no one has yet supplied an answer. They certainly do not exist in my neighborhood during the intervals of migrations; and the Kjölen range was probably selected as their habitat, not because it was proved to be so, but because so little is known about it at all. The answer to the second question is certain: They go to the sea. Those on the east of the backbone of Norway go to the Gulf of Bothnia, and those on the west to the Atlantic Ocean (Fig. 4), and out of eighteen migrations which have been investigated, one only, and that very doubtful, is reported

PSM V11 D426 Lemming migration path in sweden.jpg
Fig. 4.—Outline Map of Scandinavia. The two main valleys. Gudbrandalen and the valley of the Glommen, run nearly north and south. The course of the Lemmings crosses these at right angles, as indicated by the arrows.

to have been directed southward. The question as to the cause of these migrations remains, and is a very difficult one to answer. We have been told that the foreknowledge of approaching severe weather predetermines the exodus: my experience, however, contradicts this, and it may be dismissed as merely a popular superstition. Unusual reproduction and consequent deficiency of food is a more plausible theory; but I have always noticed that, just as with the swallow, a few individuals have preceded the main body, and that during the first autumn the numbers are never large, but, after a winter spent beneath the snow, they begin to breed with the first days of summer, and thus develop the extraordinary multitude which is, as it well may be, the astonishment and terror of the country. It appears, then, that excessive reproduction is rather the result than the cause of migration. It has also been suggested that the course taken by the lemmings follows the natural declivities of the country, but a reference to the maps will show that in that case nearly all the Norwegian migrations should take a southerly route, which is by no means the case. On the contrary, westward at Heimdalen means across a rapid river, over a wide lake, and up a steep, rocky, and snowy mountain, and this is the course which is followed. Now, this ends eventually in the ocean, and thus we are again landed at the question from which we set out. After all, it is not the power of direction which is so remarkable; this is a faculty possessed by many animals, and by man himself in a savage state. A young dog which I took from England, and then from my home in Vaage by a path to Heimdalen, a distance of forty-six miles, ran back the next morning by a direct route of his own, crossing three rapid rivers and much snow, and accomplishing the distance in six hours, without the vestige of a path. This same dog afterward repeated the feat, but followed the path, and took two days in reaching his destination, hindered and not aided, as I believe, by his experience. Herr Palmén, indeed, says, "Experience guides migration, and the older migrants guide the younger," like one of Mr. Cook's personally-conducted tours. This obviously cannot be the case with the lemmings.

It is now generally admitted that instinct is merely inherited experience, and is, therefore, primarily calculated to benefit the species, unless, indeed, circumstances have changed meanwhile more rapidly than the structures to which the phenomena of instinct are due. Now, the lemmings during their wanderings pass through a land of milk and honey, where, if their instincts could be appeased, they might well take up a permanent abode; and yet they pass on, while their congener, the field-vole, remains in quiet possession of the quarters from which he was temporarily ousted. It is, indeed, almost as strange a sight to see the holes, the deeply-grooved runs, and the heaps of refuse, of these restless creatures, which have passed away but yesterday, as it is to see the fields suddenly become alive with a new and boisterous tenant, who, like another Ishmael, has the hand of all men against him.

Now, if we compare the migration of the lemmings with that of our more familiar swallows, we find that the latter obviously seek a more genial climate and more abundant food, returning to us as surely as summer itself; nor do they ever, so far as I know, breed on their passage. The swifts, which stay but a short time with us, remain in Norway barely long enough to rear their young before returning to Africa. It is difficult, in fact, to find a parallel case to that of the lemmings. The nearest approach, perhaps, is afforded by the strange immigration of Pallas's sand-grouse in 1863, when a species whose home is on the Tartar steppes journeyed on in considerable numbers to the most western shores of Europe, and very probably many perished, like the lemmings, in the waves of the Atlantic. But to revert to the swallows, which annually desert Europe to visit Africa. Let us suppose that these birds were partial migrants—only that is, that a remnant remained with us after the departure of the main body—and further suppose that the continent of Africa were to become submerged, would not many generations of swallows still follow their inherited migratory instincts, and seek the land of their ancestors through the new waste of waters, while the remaining stock, unimpeded by competition, would sooner or later, according to the seasons, recruit the ranks for a new exodus? It appears quite as probable that the impetus of migration toward this lost continent should be retained as that a dog should turn round before lying down on a rug, merely because his ancestors found it necessary thus to hollow out a couch in the long grass.

Well, then, is it probable that land could have existed where now the broad Atlantic rolls? All tradition says so; old Egyptian records speak of Atlantis, as Strabo and others have told us. The Sahara itself is the sand of an ancient sea, and the shells which are found upon its surface prove that no longer ago than the Miocene period a sea rolled over what now is desert. The voyage of the Challenger has proved the existence of three long ridges in the Atlantic Ocean, one extending for more than 3,000 miles; and lateral spurs may, by connecting these ridges, account for the marvelous similarity in the fauna of all the Atlantic islands. However, I do not suppose that the lemmings ever went so far south, though they are found as fossils in England; but it is a remarkable fact that, while the soundings off Norway are comparatively shallow for many miles, we find a narrow but deep channel near Iceland, which probably has prevented the lemming from becoming indigenous there, although an American species was found in Greenland during the late arctic expedition. If, as is probable, the Gulf Stream formerly followed this deep channel, its beneficent influence would only extend a few miles from the coast, which would also have reached to a great distance beyond the present shores of Norway, and thus the lemmings would have acquired the habit of traveling westward in search of better climate and more abundant food; and, as little by little the ocean encroached on the land, the same advantages would still be attained. And thus, too, we find an explanation of the fate which befalls the adventurous wanderers; for we have already seen that no lake deters them, and that they frequently cross the fjords, or arms of the sea, in safety. No doubt, therefore, they commit themselves to the Atlantic in the belief that it is as passable as those lakes and fjords which they have already successfully dared, and that beyond its waves lies a land which they are never destined to reach.

The submerged continent of Lemuria, in what is now the Indian Ocean, is considered to afford an explanation of many difficulties in the distribution of organic life, and I think the existence of a Miocene Atlantis will be found to have a strong elucidative bearing on subjects of greater interest than the migration of the lemming. At all events, if it can be shown that land existed in former ages where the North Atlantic now rolls, not only is a motive found for these apparently suicidal migrations, but also a strong collateral proof that what we call instincts are but the blind and sometimes even prejudicial inheritance of previously-acquired experience.—Popular Science Review.