The marmot

Alpine Marmot (Marmota marmota)

The Marmot is a relative of the squirrel, but unlike the squirrel, it lives on the ground and forms large groups. This charming rodent belongs to the Sciuridae family. It inhabits altitudes above 1,500 meters (often between 1,900 and 2,600 meters), particularly in rocky areas at the upper limit of the forest, where trees become sparse and decrease in size.

In addition to the Alps, it can also be found in the Carpathians, and since 1948, the marmot has been successfully reintroduced in the Pyrenees, where it had completely disappeared at the beginning of the Quaternary era.


Physical Characteristics

The marmot is a robust animal weighing around 5/6 kg, with a length of approximately 70 cm, including a 20 cm tail. It is a plantigrade with powerful legs and long claws, featuring a broad and short muzzle. The head is large and round, with eyes positioned to provide a wide field of vision, and its ears are small and round, nearly completely hidden in the fur. Numerous vibrissae (whiskers) are essential for its subterranean life, and the incisor teeth are highly developed (resembling those of a squirrel). The tail is long, dark, hairy, and ends in a black tuft. The fur is thick and coarse, gray-brown on the back, while the underside is rust-colored. The average lifespan of the alpine marmot is 15-18 years.

Predators of marmots

Its most formidable predator is the golden eagle. Marmots have many predators such as wolves, bears, weasels, and raptors. Young may be predated by snakes.

Paw prints

Front Paw Print: length 6 cm
Hind Paw Print: length 6 cm

Marmot footprints

Marmot footprints

Behavior

It is an animal that enjoys sunbathing in groups: during the day, it forages for food and sunlight, plays with other marmots, but always stays close to its burrow, where it retreats in the evening. It spends a considerable amount of time grooming itself. Despite its weight, this rodent can run, jump, and climb among rocks with extraordinary speed and agility. When frightened, it emits a distinctive and sharp whistle. Using its paws and long claws, it digs extensive burrows with various interconnected rooms and underground galleries. Summer burrows are shallow with multiple exits, while winter ones are meticulously constructed: essentially, they have an access tunnel that can be several meters long, leading to a large chamber stocked with hay. They can hibernate in these shelters for up to six months.

The hibernation of the marmot

It is an extraordinary animal, capable of living and reproducing in a harsh environment, such as the high mountains can sometimes be. By the end of September, they gather in their burrows and prepare them for the long winter period. In these burrows, 3 to 10/15 marmots can coexist.

The marmot goes into hibernation, depending on the severity of the climate, usually from October to April. This rodent exhibits a remarkable state of sleep that enables it to endure the cold and snowy winter at high altitudes.

During hibernation, it undergoes a true physiological miracle: its body temperature drops from 95 to less than 41 degrees Fahrenheit, the heart rate decreases from 130 to 15 beats per minute, and breathing becomes barely perceptible.

Marmot burrow.

During this period, it slowly consumes the body fat reserves accumulated during the warmer season and sleeps deeply for six months alongside the rest of its family. It sporadically wakes up, usually only when the temperature inside the den drops below five degrees. Surviving the winter is, however, very challenging. Sociability has been highlighted as a crucial element for survival. Some data show that offspring have a better chance of surviving when they hibernate with their parents and older siblings.

When the father and mother are absent from the den, or one parent is missing, in 70% of cases, the offspring will not survive the harsh winter. The marmot’s thermoregulation is, therefore, a social one: the more there are, the greater the chances of survival, especially for the young, who are unable to accumulate a sufficient layer of fat before the cold sets in and, for this reason, need to be warmed by the adults. The latter experience a greater loss of body weight when the new offspring are inside the den.

Marmot feeding

The marmot is vegetarian, feeding on grasses, shoots, roots, flowers, fruits, and bulbs. It particularly enjoys aromatic herbs. Only occasionally does it consume insects. It does not drink water; its water intake comes from plants.

Marmot
It’s a tasty marmot!

Scientific Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Superorder: Euarchontoglires
Order: Rodentia
Suborder: Sciuromorpha
Family: Sciuridae
Genus: Marmota
Species: Marmota marmota


Territorial defense

Marmots are territorial animals. Thanks to glands found in the plantar pads of the front paws, on the muzzle, and in the anal region, they emit an odoriferous secretion that “marks” the boundaries of their territories. However, sometimes, this is not enough to keep other marmots away.

Fights and chases are the most convincing ways to tell intruders it’s time to leave. However, when a predator approaches, the rule is to flee. To do so quickly, marmots have devised an effective system: the first one to sense danger sounds the alarm, and in a few seconds, the group takes refuge in the den.

The technique is simple. The “sentinel” stands upright on its hind legs, in a candle-like position, opens its mouth, and emits a whistling cry, caused by the expulsion of air through the vocal cords, which according to researchers, is a true language.

The Marmot’s call

Whistling. Whistling is the vocalization used by the marmot to alert the community to the presence of potential threats. When a sentinel detects an imminent danger, it stands on its hind legs and emits a sound resembling a whistle, signaling to other members to retreat into the burrows. In the past, it was mistakenly thought to be an actual whistle, but it is, in fact, a laryngeal cry emitted with the mouth open.

The type of marmot whistle varies depending on the nature of the threat. A ground-based approaching predator is considered a relative risk, as it is more manageable, allowing the marmot to escape and seek refuge. However, the archetypal airborne predator, the golden eagle, poses a deadly threat.

Thus, the type of marmot whistle not only alerts to the imminent presence of danger but also indicates its severity: a rhythmic series of whistles if the threat comes from the ground and a single, powerful whistle if it comes from the sky, signaling an immediate retreat into the burrows.

Reproduction

The mating season occurs from April to June: after a little over a month of gestation, the marmot gives birth to 2 to 5 offspring, naked and blind, which will open their eyes after 3 weeks. They are nursed for up to a month and a half and become independent at 2 months.
The female has ten mammary glands. It reaches sexual maturity around 3 years of age.