Olympic Marmot Alarm Calling Factsheet

Dr. Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Los Angeles



What are marmot alarm calls?

Olympic marmots (Marmota olympus) are sciurid rodents and are thus related to ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Like all other marmots, Olympic 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 hoary marmot, Olympic 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., Hurricane Ridge and other popular mountain summits), marmots may not alarm call and in fact may pay little attention to people (or they may view people as sources of food!). Adult females with young above ground seem to be more likely to call than other age and sex marmots: it is likely marmots alarm call to warn their vulnerable offspring and other relatives.


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 Olympic marmots have different words for predators?
In a word, no. There is no relationship between the type of call an Olympic marmot utters and the type of predator that elicited that call. Additionally, a detailed examination of alarm call structure revealed no association between call structure and predator type. Aerial and terrestrial predators elicit the full range of alarm call types. However, when Olympic marmots alarm call in response to a terrestrial predator like a coyote, they tend to utter more calls than when they call in response to an aerial predator like an eagle. When Olympic marmots heard multiple alarm calls, they became more vigilant than when they heard a single alarm call and long bouts of alarm calling keep marmots looking around for the potentially threatening stimulus.


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