Hoary Marmot

 

Hoary Marmot

Back to mammal species list

Description

The marmot is an alpine rodent species, the largest member of the squirrel (Sciuridae) family in North America. Adults weigh 10 pounds or more and reach over 30 inches in length. There are three species of marmot in Alaska: Hoary marmot (Marmota caligata), Alaska marmot (Marmota browerii) and Woodchuck (Marmota monax). The differences between Hoary and Alaska marmots lies mainly in their distribution, with Alaska marmots found farther north living among the Brooks Range mountains and north. There are also differences in markings, with Hoary marmots having a white patch above the nose. Alaska marmots lack this white patch and have softer fur compared to the Hoary. Woodchucks are reddish brown, lack facial markings and have a range along forest edges extending from eastern Lower 48 states through Canada and into areas of Alaska. Marmots (espeically Hoary) have dark brown feet, giving them a booted appearance and leading to the species name for Hoary marmots - "caligata" meaning "booted".

Lifestyle

Marmots live in protected communities among rocky slopes and plants, with plenty of underground burrows and tunnels to escape from predators. If a predator is spotted, such as an eagle overhead or an approaching wolf, the marmot on lookout will make alarm calls which send the rest of the colony scurrying underground. In other cases, especially in areas where they are used to seeing humans, their initial reaction of defense is to remain perfectly still and quiet. Marmots have a complex social structure, with families having separate burrows near each other in the colony. They are most active in early morning and late afternoon, staying underground on calm and still days when mosquitoes are thick. They are most active when there is a wind to blow the insects away. They mark their territories by rubbing face gland secretions on objects.

When it comes to winter sleep, marmots are TRUE HIBERNATORS. Their body temperature and functions are all greatly reduced during winter months. They plug the entrances to their dens with soil and plants in September, then spend their winter in a state of torpor (deep sleep) until April or May. Unlike bears who wake up periodically and have slightly reduced body functions, marmots enter a true winter hibernation with a heart rate of four beats per minute and body temperature close to 40 degrees F.

Food Habits

Marmots eat vegetation such as meadow grasses, moss, lichen and berries. The nutritional quality of some Arctic plants is relatively low, so marmots must eat a great deal to meet their nutritional requirements and prepare for hibernation. They live on terrain with permanently frozen ground, so they tend to live in small population groups near areas of good plant foraging resources. In these colonies, they have extensive tunnels and burrows for hibernation and to take cover from predators. Marmots feed heavily during summer months to accumulate the fat they will need to survive their true hibernation. They disappear underground with the first snowstorms, in September, and hibernate until June.

Lifecycle

Marmot breeding takes place in April or May in Alaska, with 2 to 6 young born blind and hairless about a month after breeding takes place. In woodchucks, the young leave their parents after just two months and have their first round of breeding at 1 year of age. In Hoary and Alaska marmots, the young stay with their parents until they are 1 year old and do not begin breeding until 2 or sometimes 3 years old. Marmots are able to live 10 years in the wild and even longer in captivity with good veterinary care.

Marmot Day in Alaska

(Text for this section taken from the Marmot Day Facebook page) The 26th Alaska State Legislature officially passed Senate Bill 58 April 18, 2009, making Marmot Day a new holiday in the 49th state[3]. Marmot Day will occur on February 2, replacing Groundhog Day with a holiday honoring Alaska's marmots.

Senate Bill 58, sponsored by Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, was first introduced by the late Dr. Curt Menard, Linda Menard's husband and former state legislator. Curt introduced the idea of creating Marmot Day in the 1990s to furthur promote the unique way of life in Alaska. After getting stuck in a committee while politics was played, the original Marmot Day bill died. Sen. Linda Menard reintroduced the bill for the 26th Alaska Legislature, seeing its passage on the second to last day of the legislative session.

Marmots are very abundant in Alaska, especially in the Brooks Range and Hatcher Pass area, the latter of which lies in Sen. Menard's legislative district. Marmot Day can be celebrated in a variety of ways, and received lots of support from the Alaska Zoo and schools in the state.

Population Status, Threats & Conservation

Marmots are important prey for many larger mammals and birds including bears, wolves, wolverines and eagles. They are important in their forest ecosystems as they help to aerate soil as they dig tunnels and dens. They also defecate and leave feces filled with enriching nutrients for the soil. They have always been hunted by Alaska Natives who value them for their hides and meat. Marmots have stable populations in Alaska, despite having a scattered density and range.

Sources:
Animal Diversity Pages, Marmot profile
Denali National Park, Marmot profile
Marmot Day in Alaska Facebook page
Marmot species profile, ADFG
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Marmot profile