Comox Valley Naturalists Society
Knowing Nature . . .
December 1, 2006
In a burrow beneath a thick blanket of snow the Vancouver Island Marmot, Canada's most endangered mammal, sleeps until spring. This large, furry rodent has a thick brown coat with a white nose and attractive white markings on the forehead, chin and belly. Vancouver Island Marmots have been here for thousands of years, at least since the last ice age and possibly longer. This species exists only on Vancouver Island.
Marmots live in lushly vegetated meadows high in the mountains. They require a variety of grasses, sedges and wildflowers for their diet, as well as deep soil for digging burrows and large boulders where they can look out for predators. These meadows are often situated on south and west facing slopes, where occasional avalanches keep trees from growing too high. Suitable meadow habitats are scattered like small islands in the mountains of Vancouver Island.
Discoveries of ancient marmot remains in caves as far away as Tahsis suggest that marmots once occupied a much greater range on Vancouver Island. Today, wild marmots are restricted to a handful of sites on south-central Vancouver Island. Most of the sites are in the Nanaimo Lakes area northwest of Lake Cowichan. One isolated colony, 74 km from the others, exists at Mt Washington.
Marmots are social animals that live in colonies made up of family groups. A typical colony includes an adult breeding age male, one or more adult breeding age females, and a varying number of marmots two years and under. The size of a colony fluctuates from year to year.
Animals hibernate from September/October through to April/May. Marmots hibernate as family groups in underground burrows, plugging the entrance with grass and mud. They may reuse the same site, or hibernacula, for many years. Burrows are constructed for different purposes. There are burrows for hibernation, burrows for giving birth, and shallow escape burrows for evading predators. Birthing burrows are often the most elaborate, with several entrances and exits.
After waking in the spring, marmots are active above ground for a few hours of the morning and late afternoon. During this time they may eat, sit on rocks, and interact with other marmots by nose touching. Play fighting, or "boxing" is a common behaviour. Standing on their hind legs, they push at each other with their forelimbs. Though this behaviour may establish dominance, marmots rarely hurt each other. Marmots communicate using a variety of vocalizations. A loud whistle will alert the colony if a predator is spotted. Cougars, wolves and golden eagles prey upon marmots, and are a significant threat.
Mating occurs in the spring, shortly after the animals emerge from hibernation. Female marmots begin breeding after 3 or 4 years, and produce 3 to 4 pups every second year. Pups usually come out of burrows in July. Both male and female marmots care for the young. Some pairs are monogamous, though often a male will mate and have offspring with more than one female.
Baby marmots hibernate with their mothers. Yearlings may stray further from home, but still return to hibernate with their families. When marmots are 2 years old, one in three will leave the colony and disperse. Dispersal is an important part of marmot biology, and helps maintain healthy populations and prevent inbreeding. Marmots may join an existing colony or start up a new colony with a mate. Sometimes, they will cover considerable distances.
Extensive logging in recent decades has had a significant impact on marmots. In the 1980's dispersing marmots began colonizing clear cuts, which mimic the marmot's natural meadow habitat. By 1984 it was estimating that about 23% of wild marmots were living in clear cuts. Marmots may use clear cuts for many years, but the growth of trees and vegetation eventually makes these habitats unsuitable. Studies show that marmots are more vulnerable to predation in clear cuts, where there is more cover for predators to stalk them.
In the 1980's 300-350 marmots existed in the wild, but in the 1990's the marmot population plummeted less than 80 individuals. Reasons for the decline are complex, including factors such as predation, the slow reproductive rates of these animals, and changes in climate and habitat.
In the 1990's government, logging companies, and the public provided funds for studying and protecting marmots from extinction. The Marmot Recovery Foundation was established in 1998, and captive breeding programs now exist at the Calgary Zoo, Toronto Zoo, the Mountain View Center in Langley, and the Tony Barrett Marmot Recovery Center at Mt Washington, which officially opened in 2002.
The marmot recovery program is having a positive effect on the survival of this species. In 2006, 56 pups were born in captivity, and 20 pups were born in the wild. 30 captive marmots were released into the wild, and 23 of these survived to go into hibernation. Breeding pairs are present on at least eight Vancouver Island Mountains, thanks to reintroductions of captive marmots. In 2003 there were only 21 marmots in the wild. Today, as a result marmot recovery efforts, that number has risen to 50. The total population, including marmots in captivity, exceeds 210.
The public plays an important part in helping to protect the endangered Vancouver Island Marmot. Donations to the Marmot Recovery Foundation directly help the field research and captive breeding programs necessary to prevent the extinction of this unique animal. To find out more about giving to the marmots, and the Adopt-a-Marmot program, visit the Marmot Recovery Foundation web site.
Vancouver based photographer Oli Gardner spent three days photographing marmots in the summer of 2006. To view more of Gardner's stunning images, check out his web site at www.glimpses.ca.
Click on a link below to view the CVNS newspaper column.