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Marmot on Guard
A story inspired by a photo
While hiking in Yellowstone I had the pleasure of sharing a moment with and photographing this marmot in a classic pose: alert and perched on a rock that offers a commanding view. Coming upon this photo recently, I realized that while I enjoy watching marmots scurry about, I knew little about them. I was inspired to learn more.
Turns out that this is likely a male standing guard near his burrow to allow quick escape from predators. He’s ready to sound a sharp whistle and warn his colony’s females and young of any approaching danger. That life-saving sound earned marmots the unbecoming nickname of whistle pig.
This marmot, of course, is not a pig. He, and all his relatives, are medium sized rodents related to squirrels and groundhogs. Marmots can reach two feet in length and eleven pounds in weight, with males longer and heavier than females.
This marmot’s life revolves around the burrow that he is guarding. A burrow provides essential shelter in the harsh climate of the high elevation meadows and rocky fields where marmots live. To create a burrow, industrious marmots dig about two feet down and then excavate fourteen or so feet horizontally. They also add short tunnels that branch from that main passage. Marmots may use the same burrow all year, or may switch to a deeper, more protected, burrow for winter.
Marmots have high standards: though many burrows are dug, few are chosen. That’s because marmots spend about 80% of their lives in their burrows. Some of that time is spent hiding from predators such as coyotes, bears, badgers, and golden eagles. Some is spent using the burrow as a nursery. But the bulk of that below-ground time passes quietly and safely during hibernation.
To prepare for his long hibernation, this marmot will fatten up—perhaps double his weight—on nutritious new grasses as summer arrives. He’ll switch to calorie-packed seeds as summer fades and the nutritional value of grasses decreases. The fat he adds must sustain him during the two hundred or more days of his hibernation: after entering the burrow in September to early October, he will remain there until April or May. As temperatures fall and winter rages, this male and his ten to twenty colony members will huddle together, sharing their warmth in a burrow room insulated with dried grasses brought there during a busy summer.
Just as the weather outside changes during his hibernation, so will his body. His temperature will fall by more than half to around forty-one degrees Fahrenheit. His normal active heart rate of up to two hundred beats per minute will drop to an average of thirty. His breathing will also decrease; he’ll take only one or two breaths each minute.
These incredible changes ensure that he will survive until spring and emerge with enough energy to generate the next generation. He’ll waste no time doing so: mating occurs within two weeks of leaving the burrow at hibernation’s end. Thirty days after mating, a litter of three to eight pups arrives. Each pup measures four inches long and weighs only about an ounce.
These tiny pups nurse and grow in the burrow for about three weeks and then venture outside. Once the pups are out of the burrow, the mother pays less and less attention to them. They become independent at just seven weeks old but will stay near the mother for a couple of active seasons.
By the end of summer, just a few months away, the pups and other colony members will have added life-sustaining fat and be ready to retreat to the burrow. No more guard duty for this whistling male; a long sleep awaits.
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My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. My books are also available on Amazon unsigned or as eBook or audiobook.
Photos by Rick Lamplugh