I have been lucky enough to see Marmots in both the Alps and the Rocky Mountains. They are truly a cheeky, clever and fascinating creature to watch.
Did you know that marmots are a type of squirrel?
Well they are! This lovely looking animal is a ground squirrel, and is actually the heaviest member of the squirrel family. There are 15 different species of marmot inhabiting Asia, Europe and North America.
In the summer, especially on a sunny day, you are very likely to see them in their families. This is when they are most active. In winter, they hibernate underground due to the cold temperatures of where they live.
Marmots live in burrows in either mountainous areas or rough grassland. The burrows have numerous entrances/exits which allow the marmots to dash in quickly if they see a predator. However, it never takes long for one of them to poke their noses back out, check the danger has passed, and go back to keeping guard, or eating! They also use these burrows to sleep in during hibernation, which lasts between six and seven months. They line the burrows with hay and seal them off, snuggling together for warmth.
People often think they see marmots sunbathing on rocks, but quite often this is a flat rock which they are lying on to cool down, and is possibly a strategy to deal with parasites.
Over the years, marmots have moved closer to human settlements – or maybe it’s the humans that have moved nearer to them! However, the marmots benefit from this as it gives them some protection against their natural predators such as foxes and eagles, that don’t like to stray to close to humans.
Marmots generally live in burrows, often within piles of rocks. Therefore, they have very strong legs and big claws which make them great diggers. They also have large heads and incisors (as you can see from my picture) which enable them to get through a variety of vegetation. Marmots do vary slightly in their colour based on their surroundings. For example, those that live in the more open grasslands tend to be a paler colour than those that live in the well-forested regions.
During the summer months, the marmots eat as much as possible to build up a store of fat. When they then hibernate in the winter, this stored fat keeps them warm and increases their chance of survival.
Marmots are very attentive, possessing well-developed eyes which enable them to detect movement over long distances. It may be that you hear the shrill whistle of a marmot before you see it. They use this ability to whistle loudly, with a wide repertoire of calls, to communicate with one another, especially when alarmed.
As well as making noises, they communicate with each other via scent. Scent glands in their cheeks allow marmots to recognise each other. When two marmots meet they often sniff each other or rub their cheeks together, informing each other that they are part of the family. Males also mark their territory using these scent glands.
Marmots are very sociable and loyal animals, in that they live in family groups. The family normally consists of one adult male and female and numerous young. Marmots don’t breed every year, as the young take about two to three years to learn from their parents how to watch out for predators. However, eventually the young feel the need to move out and start a family of their own – forming their own colonies.
Unlike a lot of humans, marmots love their greens, and eat mainly grasses, berries, lichens, mosses and flowers. Despite what we may think, marmots do not like the heat and will often not feed at all on very warm days. The will come out of their burrows to feed mainly in the early morning or afternoon when it is cooler.
I was lucky enough to see alpine marmots whilst walking in the Swiss Alps (to find out more about the walks, click here). Alpine marmots generally live in open grasslands between 1800 and 2200m. They are the second largest rodents in Switzerland, with the top spot being taken by the beaver.
The alpine marmot’s coat is a mixture of blonde, reddish and dark grey fur. While most of the alpine marmot’s fingers have claws, its thumbs have nails.
Alpine marmots are still hunted as a sport and, although not as commonly now, for their fat. Their fat is believed to ease rheumatism when rubbed into the skin. Some sub-species of the alpine marmot in the 18th century were also trained by the people of Savoy to dance to the playing of a musical instrument.
So, when next out walking in the mountains in parts of Europe, America, Canada and other countries listen out for the chorus of the marmot whistles and keep your eyes peeled!