(Oslo, Norwegian Press Agency) A rare species of lemming has been the first animal known to man to be identified as leaving a suicide note – by the pattern of its last droppings left just moments before leaping.
The Norwegian Lemming (pictured below) is a small rodent and distant relative of our more familiar children’s pet hamster that also possesses a long, warm, soft fur coat and very short tail; but it couldn’t live further from any metal wheel or makeshift cardboard shoebox, thriving in a natural habitat of remote Arctic tundra.
(Above) Norwegian lemming just before plunging (www.ic2.pbase.com)
Norwegian lemmings are capable of reproducing so quickly that population fluctuations prove chaotic rather than follow a normal more linear growth like other subspecies.
Indeed it still remains a mystery why lemming populations seem to fluctuate so dramatically roughly every four years, before they famously commit mass suicide during migration; a tragic fact that seems to be driven by strong natural biological urges.
Weighing between 30-112g (1.1-4.0oz) and measuring about 7-15cm (2.8-5.9in) in length Norwegian lemmings have long been known to jump off cliffs in mass numbers only to drown in the rivers, lakes, and fjords below.
The grim discovery that lemming droppings deposited pre-suicide are significantly different in appearance and pattern to those left by non-suicidal active lemmings burrowing through snow to find food was made by Bjørn Estårrdy, Professor of Natural History and leading small rodent expert and lecturer at University of Tromsø in northern Norway.
Professor Estårrdy said “In all my years of studying the behaviour of Lemmus (subspecies to which Norwegian lemmings are members) I never imagined their impending suicide could cause such an obvious change in behaviour pattern.”
He continued “It’s the equivalent of a human leaving a suicide note which means they know exactly what they’re about to do. Lemmings about to leap leave an obvious cruciate (cross-like) pattern of droppings whereas ‘happy’ lemmings just going about their daily business will always defecate in a circle.
“I hope this huge breakthrough into understanding lemming behaviour will encourage other naturalists to study fellow lemming subspecies, mammals, indeed all animals, for signs of suicide and depression.”