A Close Encounter With Marmots

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ITALY

WOULD you like to get acquainted with a shy little creature that is both fascinating and amusing? Let me tell you about a close encounter my wife and I had with a group of furry little animals called marmots.

We are in the Dolomites, a mountain range in northern Italy, within view of two majestic mountain peaks​—the Latemar and the Catinaccio. The steep path we have chosen leads to the slopes of the Catinaccio. A variety of flowers grow in the clearings. We stop to admire the elegant Turk’s-cap lily. Also capturing our attention is the black vanilla orchid, a small composite flower with a distinct vanilla fragrance. By mid-morning the sun has warmed the bark of the scattered conifers​—arolla pines, spruce firs, and larches—​causing them to fill the air with an intense balsamic fragrance.

Later we come upon a treeless valley. On our right is a steep, grassy slope. The area to the left is covered by large boulders. Suddenly, there is a quick movement. I turn instinctively, but all is still. When I look more carefully, I notice a marmot perched on a spike of rock. Perhaps a colony has taken up residence in the gaps between the boulders.

The marmot is the largest member of the squirrel family. One of the best-known species of this plump rodent is the woodchuck of North America. The marmots found in our part of the world are Alpine marmots. They are quite gregarious and live in colonies.

We leave the path and try to get a closer look, but the marmot is gone. We wait, hoping that the shy creature will reemerge. Moments later, my wife gestures excitedly. There is one peering at us from behind a boulder! Its gray-brown fur blends in with the rock, making the animal nearly invisible.  Looking more carefully, I notice that a younger marmot is also peeping out at us. A little farther away, we see still another marmot​—what we imagine to be the father. Although we cannot be sure, we like to think that we are looking at a marmot family.

The “father” marmot is about 18 inches [45 cm] tall and is sitting upright on his hind legs, as though on guard. Meanwhile, the other two marmots are moving around among the rhododendron bushes. When hunting for food, marmots dig into the earth with their forelegs, which are equipped with strong claws. On finding some root to their liking, they sit upright to gnaw it, lifting it to their mouth with their forelegs. Marmots eat in the early morning and in the evening, taking a siesta in between. Besides vegetation, they eat grasshoppers, beetles, worms, and birds’ eggs, but they do not store food in their burrows.

The family scene is amusing, but when I try to get closer to photograph the marmots, all three of them freeze. When I make another move, the silence of the valley is pierced by two shrill whistles from the “father” marmot. Quick as a flash, “mother” and “junior” dive into two cramped passages and disappear under the boulders. “Father” gazes at me for a moment. Then, after emitting two more whistles, he scurries off to join the rest of the family.

Farther down the valley, I find a boulder that appears to be an ideal observation point. I lie on top of it in wait. Not long after, two more marmots venture into the open. One clambers onto a big boulder and lies prone. The other climbs onto the same boulder from the other side. When they meet, the two marmots seem to exchange kisses.

I continue to watch the marmots, fascinated by their quick little movements, which are punctuated by long pauses. Any slight movement on my part makes them freeze and lift their heads, on the alert. Then they take their siesta, seemingly indifferent to my presence.

I notice that the grassy carpet in front of me is full of holes that are easily identified by light-colored mounds of earth. These are the marmots’ emergency burrows, where they take refuge if they sense danger during their brief feeding excursions. The underground burrows have a central chamber served by several side tunnels. The tunnels can each be from 3 to 20 feet [1 to 6 meters] in length, and the marmots navigate through these mazes with their black whiskers, called vibrissae, which are located around their muzzle.

 During the rigors of winter, groups of between 10 and 15 marmots retire into hibernation chambers. Young and old marmots from different summer burrows gather in these chambers, previously filled with hay, and curled up side by side, they begin a long sleep. Their body temperature drops to less than 46 degrees Fahrenheit [8°C], their heart rate drops to between three and five beats per minute, and they breathe only two or three times per minute​—for marmots, this is the very limit of survival. About once a month, they interrupt their sleep to excrete in latrines, specially excavated in a different part of the burrow, which are closed off by airtight plugs. The different chambers of the hibernation burrows are blocked off from each other as well, but the seals are not airtight. This way a minimal circulation of air is maintained in the burrows.

Scientists have long tried to understand how marmots survive winter conditions. It has recently been determined that hibernation is regulated by certain endocrine glands, particularly the thyroid. In fact, when animals are injected with hormonal extracts, they do not go into hibernation. But, interestingly, when animals are exposed to intense cold during the summer, they react by increasing their thyroid activity and their metabolic rate to maintain normal body temperature. Evidently, they instinctively know that the time for hibernation has not yet arrived.

The marmots are so charming that we do not notice the time. It is already afternoon, and we must leave them and return to the bottom of the valley. We reach there at dusk. We have seen many wonders of nature this day, but perhaps the greatest highlight was our close encounter with marmots.

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Marmots greeting each other

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Alpine flowers

Bearded bellflower

Turk’s-cap lily

Edelweiss

[Picture Credit Line on page 15]

Marmots: Gerken/Naturfoto-Online.de

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

Marmots: Gerken/Naturfoto-Online.de