Hoary Marmot Alarm Calling Factsheet

Dr. Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Los Angeles


What are marmot alarm calls?

Hoary marmots (Marmota caligata) are sciurid rodents: their nearest relatives are ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Like all other marmots, hoary marmots may utter one or more of several types of whistles when alarmed by a variety of predators including humans. Like their close relative the Olympic marmot, hoary marmots have "ascending calls", "descending calls", "flat calls" and "trills". The first three calls are uttered singly; they differ in the relative difference between their starting and ending frequencies (ascending calls end at a higher frequency than they start, descending call end a lower frequency, etc.). Trills are a multi-note call: a series of short ascending calls are packaged together to form a trill. Collectively, these vocalizations are referred to as "alarm calls" and marmots who hear them respond by immediately looking around and returning to their burrows if they are not already at one.


When do marmots call?

Marmots typically alarm call when they see natural predators, such as coyotes, foxes, and sometimes when they see eagles and other large birds. Depending upon where marmots live and how used they are to people, marmots may alarm call when they see a person. In areas where people are common (e.g., national parks and forests), marmots may not alarm call and in fact may pay little attention to people (or they may view people as sources of food!). Both males and females alarm call and all marmots respond to alarm calls.


What do alarm calls mean?

Some species of animals produce different types of calls in different situations. Many ground squirrels "whistle" when they see a hawk and "trill" or "chutter" when they see a coyote. When there is a strong association between the type of stimulus and the type of vocalization, such calls function as rudimentary words: animals hearing them know what type of predator is around and respond accordingly.


Do hoary marmots have different words for predators?

In a word, no. Most hoary marmot alarm calls are 'flatish' and many are long (> 0.5 second). There is no relationship between the rough type of call a hoary marmot utters and the type of predator that elicited that call. Hoary marmots tend to call more and longer to alarming stimuli on the ground when compared to alarming stimuli in the air. And, terrestrial stimuli tended to elicit longer calls than aerial stimuli. While calls that ended at a higher frequency than they started seemed to be more arousing than those calls that ended at a lower frequency, different length calls did not elicit different sorts of responses.


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