The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory offers some pretty spectacular opportunities to enjoy wildlife. A lot of scientists have a soft spot for the organism they study, and those who don butterfly nets and wide-brim hats can see beauty in a bee, butterfly, or wasp that I can almost appreciate. In turn, they glance at me quizzically when I get overexcited at new-blooming plants like Corydalis or Lathyrus. I think it’s safe to say that the common ground everyone shares here, scientist or visitor, is a love of watching the yellow-bellied marmots.
Marmots are essentially cat-sized ground squirrels. It is rumored that the outdoor clothing company Marmot chose this animal for their company name to harness the raw audacity and solidity of this furry creature. Marmots have been studied in RMBL since 1962 because they are social, diurnal animals like us. The groups live in small social groups of 2-6 marmots plus a litter of 1-6 pups. Up to five or six social groups can live in a local geographical area to make up a colony of up to 40 marmots.
Marmots can be found throughout and west of the Rockies, and find shelter in small burrows. Researchers have found that marmots tend to dig their burrows next to large boulders, which are perfect for these social animals to detect nearby predators. A sentry will sit atop the boulder to survey the area for foxes or hawks; if seen, the sentry will emit a high-pitched distress call that echoes throughout the flower-covered meadows. Although this call puts the individual in more danger of being noticed by the predator, it allows other marmots in the colony to take cover in the many foot-wide burrows that are scattered around the boulder.
Dan Blumstein of UCLA took over the marmot experiments at RMBL in 2001. He directs a lab of over a dozen workers that trap and observe many colonies of marmots up and down-valley from the townsite. By using harmless black dye to paint symbols on the backs of the brown marmots, the researchers can determine which individual marmots are who. Each social group of marmots is governed by one male, and the colony that lives in town is headed by the fattest marmot with a large black circle painted on his back: Sunshine. Sunshine could perhaps be the local celebrity of the lab, allowing spectators to come within 10 feet to observe his belly that drapes over the fence he enjoys sitting on. I heard through the grapevine that another male once tried to establish his presence in Sunshine’s social group; that male was later found drowned in the nearby river. I’m not sure whether I should be entertained or horrified by the mob boss whose belly drags over the grass as he waddles through town.
Marmots are valuable to the understanding of the evolution of social behavior, of which us humans are well-evolved. Each year of study becomes more productive as more knowledge is expanded on these furry creatures. Marmots are not currently threatened or endangered, and it looks as though they may be benefitting from the longer growing season generated by climate change. Emerging from hibernation earlier in the spring has caused local marmot populations to increase over 3x in the last decade compared to the 40 years previous. It seems these local fuzzy favorites will be entertaining wildlife enthusiasts for a time to come.