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Do Lemmings Really Run Off Cliffs to Their Death?

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Animals are rarely known for their suicidal tendencies. Perhaps because when your daily thought pattern is limited to eat-sleep-defecate, there's no time for existential exegesis or contemplating the futility of life. That is, except for the lemming—a small, furry, gerbil-like rodent that has come to be defined by its alleged tendency to mindlessly kill itself by jumping off of cliffs. However, the long-lived myth actually has its roots in Hollywood trickery.

Populations of lemmings fluctuate dramatically, from massive herds to near extinction. For years, theories on these populace peaks and plummets varied from the supernatural to the absurd. As reported by ABC News in 2004:

"In the 1530s, the geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg, tried to explain these variations in populations by saying that lemmings fell out of the sky in stormy weather, and then suffered mass extinctions with the sprouting of the grasses of spring. Back in the 19th century, the Naturalist Edward Nelson wrote that 'the Norton Sound Eskimo have an odd superstition that the White Lemming lives in the land beyond the stars and that it sometimes comes down to the earth, descending in a spiral course during snow-storms.'"

That was before the modern meaning gained traction: That populations tumbled because packs of lemmings would occasionally run head-first off of cliffs, plunging to their self-induced death for no apparent reason. To refer to an individual as a lemming thus became synonymous with calling them a follower of a large group--a community on an unthinking course towards mass destruction.

However, this does a disservice to these cuddly hamster-lookalikes.

It turns out that there is no proof that an assemblage of wild lemmings would actually drive themselves off of a cliff at all, but rather the myth was perpetuated by a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness, in which the filmmakers manually ran a pack of lemmings off of a cliff to make for good television. The staged suicide turned out to be a critical success, as the movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. See a clip of the film below.

During the cliff-diving sequence, the pocket-sized creatures cascade into thin air, tumbling backward and flailing their Lilliputian limbs a la Mufasa in The Lion King, before they land with a distinctive splash in the Arctic Sea. The survivers then swim deeper into the vast body of water, where the narrator speculates they will soon drown.

Since White Wilderness, this erroneous misnomer has finagled its way into the present-day lexicon, including being referenced in a 2008 US Senate campaign ad, as well as a song by Blink-182.

While a definitive explanation for the waxing and waning lemming communities remains unknown, recent speculation suggests their explosive annihilation can be attributed to the variety of predators they attract, including the stoat—a short-tailed weasel that's even capable of hunting lemmings beneath winter snow beds.

As the narrator of the documentary, Winston Hibler, suggests: "In this land of many mysteries, it's a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creatures."

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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