The Marmots of British Columbia - Wildlife in Canada
The Marmot Species in British Columbia
Marmots are the largest ground squirrels in the world. They usually live in mountainous areas and have thick coats to keep them warm. They are very social animals that often live in colonies. They are also very vocal and produce a number of different calls. During the day, marmots feed on the plants in alpine or subalpine meadows. At night, they sleep in the extensive burrow system that they've constructed.
There are four species of marmots in British Columbia - the hoary marmot, the yellow-bellied marmot, the Vancouver Island marmot and the groundhog. The groundhog is related to the other three animals but is a little different from them. The marmots of British Columbia are very interesting animals to observe, but they can only be seen in summer. The animals hibernate for seven or eight months each year.
The hoary marmot is a big animal that gets its name from the mantle of white hair over its shoulder and upper back. The yellow-bellied marmot is a smaller animal that is red brown in colour and has a yellow or orange belly. The Vancouver Island marmot is also smaller than the hoary marmot and has a chocolate brown coat with white patches. This animal is of particular concern because its population is critically endangered.
Vancouver Island and Mainland British Columbia
The Province of British Columbia in Canada
British Columbia is Canada's most westerly province and lies next to the Pacific Ocean. The "mainland" area of the province is joined to the rest of Canada. A number of islands are located off the west coast of the mainland. The largest of these islands is Vancouver Island. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and is located on Vancouver island.
The hoary and yellow-bellied marmots live on the mainland of British Columbia as well as in the United States. The Vancouver Island marmot lives only on Vancouver Island.
What is a Marmot?
Marmots are mammals that belong to the rodent order and the squirrel family. They are divided into two groups which have slightly different features.
- The Marmota group consists of the European and Asian marmots as well as the North American groundhog or woodchuck. The groundhog lives at lower elevations than its North American relatives and generally isn't referred to as a "marmot". It has a widespread distribution in both Canada and the United States and is found in British Columbia.
- The Petromarmota group consists of the four marmots that live only in western North America (the Hoary, Yellow-bellied, Vancouver Island and Olympic marmots).
The Olympic marmot is found only on the Olympic peninsula in Washington. This peninsula is located immediately to the south of Vancouver Island.
The Hoary Marmot Whistle
The Hoary Marmot or Whistler
Hoary marmots live in alpine areas above or at the tree line. The term "hoary" refers to the white mantle of hair on the marmot's shoulders and upper back. The rest of the coat is usually red-brown but varies considerably in colour. Sometimes the animal is almost entirely white. Its scientific name is Marmota caligata.
The hoary marmot is also called a whistler because of the high pitched sounds that it makes to warn its colony as predators or humans approach. The famous mountain resort town of Whistler is named after the calls of the hoary marmots in the area. Other marmots in British Columbia also produce a whistle as an alarm call. Like the hoary marmot, they are sometimes known as whistle pigs.
Marmots also produce chirps and trills as alarm calls. In areas with many human visitors, however, marmots may no longer produce alarm calls when people pass by. They may even approach humans in the hope of getting food.
An adult hoary marmot is a large and bulky animal, especially if it's a male and the animal has increased its mass to prepare for hibernation. The animal may weigh as much as thirty pounds but more commonly reaches twenty pounds. The hoary marmot and the alpine marmot of Europe are both said to be the largest ground squirrels in the world.
A Hoary Marmot Close Up
The Marmot Colony
Hoary marmots are found in mountainous areas in most of mainland British Columbia. Their colonies generally consist of a dominant male, several breeding females, their youngsters and sometimes a few subordinate males. If food is limited, the marmots live alone instead of in a colony.
Hoary marmots are active during the day, when they feed on plants that grow in subalpine and alpine meadows. They spend their nights in burrows. They may also retreat into the burrows for short periods during the day. The burrows of a colony are built close to each other.
The marmots choose an area with both a meadow and boulders for their home. The burrows are constructed in the soil of the meadow or under a boulder. The soil must be soft and deep in order for a marmot to dig efficiently and create a suitable home. A site under a boulder is often chosen for the burrow because the boulder provides protection from animals that can dig, such as bears. The burrow system is frequently complex, with deep chambers and tunnels and multiple entrances. Chambers are often lined with plant material.
Marmots greet each other around the burrow entrances and youngsters play with one another there. The boulders in a colony's territory make good lookout posts for marmots who are acting as sentinels for the colony. The boulders are also good places for the marmots to sun themselves.
The Life of a Hoary Marmot
The year is a short one for a hoary marmot. Like all British Columbia marmots, the animal is active during the summer and hibernates during the winter. Hibernation lasts from September to April.
Mating takes place inside burrows soon after hibernation ends. The females reach reproductive maturity at two years of age but may not breed until they are three years old. Gestation lasts for about thirty days and two to five pups are born. The pups leave the burrow at about one month of age. Hoary marmots are thought to live for a maximum of twelve years. Due to predation, however, the animals may not reach this maximum lifespan.
Despite their large size, hoary marmots have multiple predators, including foxes, coyotes, wolverines, bears, lynx and golden eagles. Youngsters are especially vulnerable to predation.
A marmot's hibernation burrow is generally deeper than burrows intended for daily use and is located below the frost level. Hibernation is a potentially dangerous time in which the animal is unresponsive to its surroundings. A hibernating marmot is in a deep torpor and its temperature is only slightly higher than that of its immediate environment. In addition, its heart beats very slowly and its breathing rate is much slower than normal.
In captivity, a marmot in hibernation may wake for short periods and even leave the burrow to urinate before going back into the burrow and falling into a torpor again.
A hibernating animal relies on its stored fat for energy while it is in a topor and immediately after it emerges from the burrow. If it doesn't have enough stored fat it won't be able to survive. Despite the danger, however, hibernation is beneficial for the marmot species as a whole, since it enables animals to survive during the winter when their food is unavailable.
The Yellow-Bellied Marmot or Rock Chuck
The yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) generally lives in a colony but may also live with one other animal or on its own. It's often found at lower elevations than the hoary marmot and may be seen in rocky areas, mountain meadows and areas with mixed meadow and trees.
Like the hoary marmot, the yellow-bellied marmot looks quite bulky when it has built up fat stores. However, it's considerably smaller than the hoary marmot and reaches a maximum weight of only about eleven pounds.
Yellow-bellied marmots build their burrows under rocks, bushes or logs, which hide the entrance to a burrow. Like other marmots, they feed on plants during the summer, socialize with members of their colony (such as by greeting and grooming each other) and produce alarm cells when predators approach. In addition to the whistle, chirp and trill, yellow-bellied marmots produce a sound known as a "chuck".
Yellow-bellied marmots hibernate for seven or eight months of the year. Many spend September to April in their hibernation burrow, or hibernaculum. Hibernation tends to last for a shorter time in warmer habitats.
The yellow-bellied marmot reaches reproductive maturity at two years of age, but only about twenty five-percent of females reproduce at this age. Most wait until they are three years old to reproduce. The usual litter size is three to eight pups. Gestation period is about thirty days and pups emerge from the burrow after about a month.
Roger, The Yellow-Bellied Marmot at the Empress Hotel
Since 2008, a wild yellow-bellied marmot has been living on the grounds of the Fairmont Empress Hotel, a luxury hotel in Victoria. He's thought to have found his way there after hitching a ride on a truck that travelled from the mainland on a ferry, but the actual explanation for his arrival is unknown. Yellow-bellied marmots don't normally live on Vancouver Island.
The marmot has chosen a rockery next to a lawn for his home, which roughly resembles a rocky area next to a meadow in his natural habitat. He has avoided all attempts to trap him and has successfully survived hibernation each year. Yellow-bellied marmots are thought to live up to fifteen years.
The Empress marmot has been named "Roger". Note that feeding Roger as shown in the video below isn't recommended. He (or she) is still a wild animal!
Yellow-Bellied Marmot at the Empress Hotel in Victoria
The Vancouver Island Marmot
Vancouver Island marmots are chocolate brown in colour with a white patch on their chest, muzzle and the top of their head. Like other marmots, they have strong shoulder muscles and strong claws to help them dig. They reach a maximum weight of about 15.5 pounds. The scientific name of the Vancouver Island marmot is Marmota vancouverensis.
The marmots live in small colonies that generally consist of two to seven animals. They establish their burrows in alpine or subalpine meadows and feed on the plants that grow there, including herbs, flowers, grasses and sedges,. The burrows are usually built at the base of boulders or tree trunks.
In addition to the usual marmot calls, the Vancouver Island marmot produces a unique two-tone sound represented as "kee-aw". This can be heard at the Marmot Burrow website described below.
Waking Up From Hibernation - The Vancouver Island Marmot
Vancouver Island Marmot Hibernation
Vancouver Island marmots hibernate from mid September to late April or even early May. Researchers have discovered that the marmots block the entrance to their hibernaculum from the inside with rocks and soil. Radio telemetry indicates that some of the marmots hibernate as a family group
Radio telemetry is very useful for wildlife biologists. A device that emits radio waves is attached to an animal's body. The device is often located inside a collar. Researchers can then track the animal from a distance as they detect the radio waves.
As in the other marmot species, the Vancouver Island marmot mates in a burrow shortly after hibernation ends. The litter that results generally consists of three or four pups, which are born after a gestation period of about thirty-two days. The pups emerge from the burrow after one month of development.
Vancouver Island Marmots at the Calgary Zoo
Why is the Vancouver Island Marmot Endangered?
There seems to be no one reason why the Vancouver Island marmot population is in trouble. Several theories have been proposed. Some or all of the following observations and suggestions may be contributing to the population problem.
- Animals have been mistaking clearcut areas or areas cleared for ski hills for subalpine meadows. After settling there and creating burrows they may not be able to find enough food.
- As the forest regrows in clearcut areas, the marmots are forced to move. They may therefore never get a chance to reproduce regularly and establish a sustainable population.
- Suitable habitats for the marmots are often widely separated.
- Roads created for logging trucks have established an easy passage for predators.
- Wolves, cougars and golden eagles prey on marmots. If these predators can't find enough of their other prey, they may increase their predation on the marmots.
- The Vancouver Island marmot has a low reproductive rate. As is the case for the other two marmots, a female is capable of producing pups at two years of age. However, the female Vancouver Island marmot generally doesn't have her first litter until she is three, four or even five years old. After this, she normally reproduces only every other year.
Saving the Vancouver Island Marmot
Current Status of the Vancouver Island Marmot
According to the Marmot Recovery Foundation, in 2003 fewer than thirty wild Vancouver Island marmots existed, and they lived on only a "handful" of mountains. Several captive breeding and release programs were started soon after this discovery.
In 2011, which is apparently the last time that a population count was made, around 320 to 370 wild animals existed, and they were living on twenty eight mountains. The IUCN, or International Union for Conservation of Nature, still classifies the marmot as critically endangered, however.
Some researchers say that about 700 Vancouver Island marmots will need to exist in the wild before we can be reasonably certain that the species will survive. The recovery signs that have appeared so far are encouraging, but the battle to save the marmot isn't over. It would be a great shame if this marmot disappeared from the Earth.
More Marmot Information
© 2014 Linda Crampton