The "Lemming Years"


Originally published in Disciple, April 12, 2010.

Most of the time, the Norway lemming is one of the most ordinary creatures you could imagine. It is only when his generation sets its mind on moving that the lemming ceases to be ordinary.

Norway lemmings are shy little rodents which inhabit the waste places of northern Scandinavia. They like to feed upon roots, shoots, ends of twigs, or grass-whatever vegetation is at hand. They raise their families in the summer time, and try their best to avoid predators, like all small animals.

As long as things go on like this, the normal routines of life and occasional violent death occupy their colonies in the arctic meadows. But about every fourth year, unusual things begin to happen and build to a climax that ends in the mass destruction of many thousands of lemmings. The onset of what are called "lemming years" is first signaled by a major change in breeding patterns. Instead of two annual litters of about 5 each, female lemmings produce four litters of 6 to 8 each.

This nearly triples the population in a very short time, without any corresponding increase in available food. By fall the lemmings are no longer shy, as they are driven by hunger to gather food where and whenever they can find it. Eventually, something tells the lemmings that it is time to migrate. In Scandinavia the mass movements always start from one of five regions, and follow old paths to the same goals. In the far north of Norway, for example, the goal appears always to be either the Lofoten Island to the northwest, or the Gulf of Bothnia to the southeast.

Once begun, a strange "migration fixation" comes over the scurrying horde. Though scarcity of food triggered the migration, after the flood of lemmings has reached ample food supplies in the lower valleys they will not turn aside nor slow the march in order to fill their stomachs.

Nor do they allow obstacles to turn them from their appointed course. Even though they are not good swimmers, the leading animals plunge recklessly into swift rivers, urged on by ceaseless pressure from the following ranks. Thousands perish in such crossings, but the rest push on heedlessly.

Indeed, nothing stops the lemmings' advance, as long as there are lemmings left, until they reach the sea. And when that happens, the remnant of the horde keeps right on marching into the fatal waters. Rarely are there more than a few survivors.

Back on their home grounds, the lemming population is gradually built up again by the few who did not migrate. Lemmings will be scarce for a year or two, but after another four years there is usually once again a population explosion, and the cycle is repeated.

There are puzzling aspects to this periodic pattern of self-destruction. We noted, for example, that the condition is largely brought about by a sudden increase in the number of young produced. Thus, the migrations are not simply a unique method of handling a problem of surplus numbers. If lemmings had "evolved" this solution, they would have been better served had they omitted the spurt in breeding during "lemming years." It makes no evolutionary sense.

The fact is that no one knows what causes the periodic massive jump in numbers, nor why they behave so strangely while on the march. They respond to orders that we can neither detect nor comprehend, and which seem in some ways to be harmful rather than helpful to the species. Nevertheless, the system works: the overall population of lemmings (and the consequent numbers of predators) remains in harmony with their environment.

It should be sufficient for us that someone understands and has the situation well in hand. We can rest assured that the One who created lemmings and established the pattern for their generations is well able to see to their needs-and to ours also. God Himself tells us in the Bible that "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, saith the Lord; for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Is. 55:8-9).

The Bible also assures us that this God, whose thoughts and deeds are incalculably beyond us, is also the Preserver and the Rock of Refuge for His children in time of trouble. How comforting this is! How wonderful to know that when we reach the limits of our understanding, of our strength, or of our resources, God's power to help is yet unlimited. Let us draw near with our hearts to this God of all!

The Old Scot (Ted Kyle) served as managing editor for Pulpit Helps magazine (Disciple's predecessor publication) from 1993-2008. He was always fascinated by the natural world, and readily saw God's hand in every detail. Ted went to be with His Creator and Savior in April 2013.

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