The meaning of marmot whistles
If I had to pick my favorite rodent, the choice would be easy: the marmot. Or more precisely, the yellow-bellied marmot of the American West, scientifically known as the Marmota flaviventris.
Mountain marmots are furry, about two feet long, and weigh around 10 pounds. They're closely related to other large ground squirrels, like groundhogs, gophers and woodchucks.
If you've ever hiked in high, rocky terrain, you've probably seen and heard marmots -- they chirp and whistle to warn their fellows of your approach.
Photo Credit: Hickey, Bill
Those sounds may not mean much to us, but there's a lot of information in them, according to research done at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte.
There, biologists from UCLA have been studying marmots for nearly 50 years. It turns out that they have a social system and can be identified by their whistles. Some marmots are "nervous nellies" who get alarmed over trifles -- and the others tend to disregard their warnings as though they came from the "little boy who cried wolf."
Wolves are rare in the West, but marmots do need to worry about coyotes, bobcats, eagles, badgers, owls and weasels. Their main protection when they're out foraging is to scurry under big rocks where big birds can't reach them and burrowing predators can't dig.
A few years ago, I proposed that Colorado replace Groundhog Day with a Feb. 2 Marmot Day. Not that a marmot is likely to step out and check her shadow in February, since they typically hibernate from October to April. The proposal went nowhere, but this year, Alaska celebrated its first official Marmot Day with some educational activities; no marmot was forced to wake up and perform weather-forecasting duties.
After all, shadow or no shadow on Feb. 2, at least six more weeks of winter is a safe prediction in Alaska -- or in Colorado at marmot elevations.
Even if marmots look cuddly and can be quite friendly -- I've had them come up and beg when I stopped for a trail-side snack -- it's wise to keep your distance. For one thing, that's a good policy for all wild creatures. For another, the Black Death that killed millions of Chinese and Europeans in the 14th century may have been spread by fleas that jumped from infected marmots in central Asia.