Meet the marmot
special to the daily
We often see these brown, round, furry critters sitting on top of rocks high in stunning alpine settings. We hear their whistles as we hike above timberline along with the “eek!” of the pika. Yellow-bellied marmots chuck, whistle and trill. The whistles and trills are alarm calls used to communicate with one another, especially when alarmed. Because of this, they have also been called “whistle pigs.”
There are 14 different species of marmot. Marmots are related to ground hogs, woodchucks, ground squirrels and prairie dogs, and actually belong in the squirrel family. The ones we find in the Rockies are the yellow-bellied marmot, also called rock chucks, and these marmots are the best-studied of the marmot species.
Marmots are mainly vegetarians and eat many types of greens, grasses, berries, lichens, roots, flowers and mosses. They inhabit steppes, meadows, talus fields and other open habitats, sometimes on the edge of deciduous or coniferous forests, typically above 6,500 feet. Their territory is about 4 to 7 acres around a number of summer burrows and they dig their burrows under rocks because predators like wolves, foxes, hawks, eagles and coyotes are less likely to see their burrows.
Marmots may live up to an age of 15 years. Adult yellow-bellied marmots are about 26 inches long and usually weigh between 5 and 11 pounds when fully grown, and they get much fatter in the fall just before hibernating. About half of this stored fat is lost during hibernation. Animals with insufficient fat, or in a burrow too shallow to prevent freezing, do not arouse in the spring. They reside in colonies of 10-20 individuals. Each male marmot digs a new burrow soon after he wakes up from hibernation. He then starts looking for female. Yellow-bellied marmot males have a “”harem-polygynous” system whereby a male defends and mates with one or more females. Female daughters may not disperse and may settle around their mothers. Sons disperse as yearlings and try to find their own “harem” of females. Females reach breeding age at the age of 2. The gestation period is about 30 days and litter sizes average around four pups, but generally only half survive their first year. They are weaned at about 20-30 days.
Different species of marmots live in a variety of social systems ranging from the mostly solitary groundhog to those highly social species where offspring from several years live together with their parents and, in the case of alpine marmots, may help rear younger siblings.
The only U.S. holiday named after an animal, Groundhog Day, is named after a marmot. At least three woodchucks are reputed to predict the weather. In the northern U.S., the responsibility falls upon Punxsutawney Phil. In the South, Beauregard Lee is “the one.” On the Bruce Peninsula of Lake Huron, the albino marmot is called Wiarton Willie. Where does this tradition come from? All 14 species of marmots are true hibernators, and during the winter their body temperature drops to a few degrees Celsius. They don’t keep their body temperature down all winter, rather, they wake up every week or so for a little while and then go back into deep hibernation, until they decide that spring is “in the air.”
Some marmot trivia: In the Alps, a medicine made from marmot fat is a prized remedy for rheumatoid problems. Central Asian marmots carry the plague bacteria. “Marmot” is a well known brand of outdoor clothing, and equipment. There is a mountaineering company called “Marmot Mountain Works.” There
is a “Marmot Library Network” in Colorado. In Switzerland, monuments are created to marmots, and many countries honor marmots on their postage stamps including on the U.S. Alpine Tundra Stamp unveiled in 2007. Cute marmots have also been featured in cartoons.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.
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