Vancouver Island Alarm Calling Factsheet

Dr. Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Los Angeles



What are marmot alarm calls?

Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis) are sciurid rodents and are thus related to ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Like all other marmots, Vancouver Island marmots may utter one or more of several types of whistles when alarmed by a variety of predators including humans. Like their close relatives--the hoary and Olympic marmot-- Vancouver Island 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. Vancouver Island marmots also have a fifth vocalization called a "kee-aw". 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 wolves, 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. Vancouver Island marmots are relatively quiet as marmots go. Even those groups who rarely see people, are unlikely to call when a person enters a meadow. 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 Vancouver Island marmots have different words for predators?
In a word, not really. Vancouver Island marmots are more likely to emit descending calls when they see aerial predators and flat calls when they see terrestrial predators, but they may also emit more than one type of call in response to both terrestrial and aerial predators. Calls vary in their duration; marmots hearing long calls are more aroused than marmots hearing shorter calls. When marmots call more than once, they may include kee-aws in their calling bouts. Kee-aws alone do not communicate a high risk to other marmots. Kee-aws seem to function to maintain vigilance in other marmots; bouts containing kee-aws, while not as alarming as bouts only containing long calls, still keep marmots looking around.


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