Yellow-bellied Marmot Alarm Calling Factsheet

Dr. Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Los Angeles


What are marmot alarm calls?

Yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) are sciurid rodents who are related to ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Like all other marmots, yellow-bellied marmots whistle or chirp when alarmed by a variety of predators, hence a common name "whistle pig". Sometimes, they make a "chucking" sound, perhaps the impetus for another common name, "rock chuck". When marmots are very scared, the pace of their chirps quickens producing a "trill". Collectively, these vocalizations are referred to as "alarm calls" and individuals 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, badgers, 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., parks, hiking trails, 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!). Marmots seem not to loose their fear of dogs though, and even in places where dogs are common, dogs tend to scare marmots into calling. Other more natural stimuli such as deer have different effects depending upon the marmots' history of association with them. At Capitol Reef National Park, marmots live cheek to jowl with numerous deer and virtually ignore them. In Colorado, marmots may call hundreds of times to a deer foraging quietly nearby.


Why do marmots call?
By calling, animals make themselves more obvious to a potential predator: a good way to find marmots is to scare them into calling and then locate the caller. In making themselves more obvious, animals may make themselves more likely to get caught. Thus, there is an evolutionary quandary: how can alarm calling evolve if it's risky to the caller? In some species of ground squirrels, individuals alarm call to warn their genetic relatives: old individuals (usually females) who have many relatives around call more than younger individuals. Thus, by warning their descendants, callers are helping to preserve their genes.

Alarm calling in yellow-bellied marmots is somewhat different. Adult females with newly emergent pups call much more than all other marmots. Other animals without newly emergent pups don't call that much even if they have a lot of genetic relatives around. Thus a considerable amount of alarm calling is a type of direct parental care where mothers call to protect their offspring. When marmots do call, they seem to minimize the risk of calling whenever possible. Most alarm calls are given by marmots who have already run back to their burrow before calling.


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 yellow-bellied marmots have different words for predators?
In a word, no. Yellow-bellied marmot chirps are their most common vocalization (97% of all vocalizations are chirps). Chirps are very short vocalizations (typically 50 milliseconds long) whose pitch, duration, and overall shape varies a bit. Yet, there is no consistent association between the type of the predator and the acoustic structure of their chirps. Yellow-bellied marmots chirp faster and produce more chirps when they see canids (i.e., dogs, coyotes, etc.) and when alarming stimuli get closer. The most extreme form of this is seen when marmots begin trilling: quickly paced chips sometimes given as they disappear into their burrows when being chased by canids or badgers. However, because marmots may give the same number of chirps to different alarming stimuli, yellow-bellied marmot alarm calls can not be said to be like rudimentary words: their calls do convey the degree of risk a caller is experiencing and marmots who hear the calls respond accordingly.


Do marmots sound the same all over?
Yellow-bellied marmots sound like yellow-bellied marmots pretty much wherever you go. Individual marmots may sound slightly different, but there is no evidence of dialects in their alarm calls. Once you learn the distinctive call of the yellow-bellied marmot, you'll be able to identify them throughout their Western North American range.


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