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Marmots

Marmots

North American marmots

Marmots elsewhere

Resources

Marmots are species of medium-sized robust, short-legged burrowing herbivorous rodents in the genus Marmota, family Sciuridae, order Rodentia. Marmots are closely related to the ground squirrels and gophers. Marmots live in burrows that they dig themselves, or sometimes in the deep crevices of rock piles and talus slopes beneath cliffs. Most species of marmots occur in alpine or arctic tundra or in open forests of North America, Europe, and Asia. The woodchuck or groundhog of North America is also a familiar species of marmot found in agricultural landscapes within its range.

Marmots have a plump, sturdy body, with a broad head, and small but erect ears. The legs and tail of marmots are short, and their fingers and toes have strong claws, and are useful tools for digging burrows. Marmots commonly line their subterranean dens with dried grasses and other haylike materials. Marmots are rather slow, waddling animals, and they do not like to venture very far from the protection of their burrows and dens. Marmots can climb rock faces and piles quite well. The pelage of marmots is short but thick, and is commonly brown or blackish colored.

Marmots often sit up on their haunches, and in this position they survey their domain for dangerous predators. Marmots are rather vocal animals, emitting loud, harsh squeaks and squeals as warnings whenever they perceive a potential predator to be nearby. As soon as any marmot hears the squeak of another marmot, it dashes back to the protection of its burrow. Marmots also squeak when communicating with each other, or if they are injured. Marmots are loosely social animals, sometimes living in open colonies with as many as tens of animals living in a communal maze of interconnected burrows.

Marmots are herbivores, eating the above-ground tissues and tubers of a wide range of herbaceous plants, as well as buds, flowers, leaves, and young shoots of shrubs. They store food in their dens, some of which is consumed during the wintertime.

Marmots gain weight through the growing season, and are very fat when they go into hibernation at the onset of winter. The hibernation occurs in dens that are thickly hay-lined for insulation, and the entrance to their den is plugged with hay or dirt at this time. Some alpine populations of marmots migrate to traditional winter-den sites lower in altitude than their summer range. Marmots typically winter in tightly huddling family groups. Marmots may occasionally waken from their deep sleep to feed, sometimes outside if the day is relatively warm and sunny.

Various animals are predators of marmots, including golden eagles, hawks, foxes, and coyotes.

Humans are also predators of marmots in some parts of their range, using the animals as a source of meat, and sometimes as a source of medicinal oils.

North American marmots

The most familiar marmot to most North Americans is the woodchuck or groundhog (Marmota monax ), a widespread and common species of open woodlands, prairies, roadsides, and the edges of cultivated fields. The woodchuck is a relatively large, reddish or brownish, black-footed marmot, with animals typically weighing about 7-13 lb (3-6 kg), although one captive animal achieved a most-fatty weight of 37 lb (17 kg) in the late autumn. Woodchucks dig their burrow complexes in well-drained soil, generally on the highest ground available to them.

The hoary marmot (M. caligata ) is a species of alpine tundra and open montane forests of the mountains of northwestern North America, also occurring in the northern tundra of Alaska, Yukon, and the western Northwest Territories. There are various subspecies of hoary marmots, including the small dark-brown Vancouver Island marmot (M. c. vancouverensis ), the Olympic marmot (M. c. olympus ) of northwestern Washington state, and the Kamchatkan marmot (M. c. camtscharica ) of the mountains of far-eastern Siberia.

The yellow-bellied marmot (M. flaviventris ) is a yellow-brown species of alpine and open montane habitats in the western United States.

Marmots elsewhere

The alpine marmot (Marmota marmota ) occurs in the Alps of northern Italy, southeastern France, and Switzerland. The habitat of this species is alpine tundra and meadows, where it lives in rock piles and in burrows. This species is subjected to a sport hunt, the male animals being referred to as bears, and the females as cats. The meat of these marmots is eaten, and their fat is a highly regarded folk medicine in some parts of its European range.

The bobak marmot (M. bobak ) occurs rather widely in high-altitude grasslands and alpine tundra of the Himalayan Mountains of central Asia. This species is hunted as food and for its fat throughout

much of its range. The long-tailed marmot (M. cau-data ) occurs in a restricted, alpine range in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Resources

BOOKS

Banfield, A.W.F. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Barash, D. Marmots: Social Behavior and Ecology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Hall, E.R. The Mammals of North America. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1981.

Nowak, R.M. ed. Walkers Mammals of the World. 6th ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Wilson, D.E. and D. Reeder, comp. Mammal Species of the World. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2005.

PERIODICALS

Armitage, K.B. Evolution of Sociality in Marmots. Journal of Mammalogy 80 (1999): 110.

Markels, Alex. Last Strand.Audubon 106 (May 2004): 4046.

Bill Freedman

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