Marmot Lore 101: Class Notes

...the lighter side of marmots

Dr. Daniel T. Blumstein
University of California Los Angeles


Woodchucks are groundhogs and vice versa. They are one of the 14 currently recognized species of marmots, large ground squirrels found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Marmots look pretty similar...HOTLINK to a variety of downloadable photographs illustrating marmot's physical similarity.

Marmots are rodents, closely related to both ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Scientists call these species sciurid (sci-your-ed) rodents. Marmots, of course, are the KINGS of the sciurid rodents. Just to be sure, you might want to visit The Squirrel Page.

Woodchucks don't "chuck" wood (whatever that means!). According to David Barash, a professor at the University of Washington, woodchucks may have gotten their name by early an colonial corruption of the Cree Indian name "otcheck". Interestingly, "otcheck" probably didn't refer to woodchucks, but to a forest-dwelling weasel.

At least 3 woodchucks are reputed to predict the weather. In the Northern US, the responsibility falls upon Punxsutawney Phil. Down South, Beauregard Lee gets the honors. On the Bruce Peninsula of Lake Huron the albino Wiarton Willie tries his luck. At least one of them tends to get it right. Sing the Groundhog Day Song--Oh Murmeltier! Groundhog day is the only US holiday named after an animal. Turkey day DOES NOT COUNT.

All 14 species of marmots are true hibernators. During the winter their body temperature drops to a few degrees Celsius. They don't keep their body temperature down all winter, rather, they wake up (people who study this call it "arousal") every week or so for a bit and then go back into "deep torpor" (deep hibernation).

Woodchucks live pretty stoic and solitary existences. Males live alone and females live alone. Males tend to mate with neighboring females, and their offspring tend to leave home before their first hibernation. All other species of marmots are much more social. In some species, adults live together in large (5-10+) groups.

While woodchucks tend to be pretty silent, their cousins tend to be quite vocal and emit loud alarm whistles or chirps at the slightest provocation. Thus a common name of North America's yellow-bellied marmot is the "whistle pig". HOTLINK to compare different marmot's alarm calls.

Some species Eurasian marmots vary the rate at which they whistle as a function of terrain. Prof. Alexander Nikolskii's long-term studies have shown that marmots call faster when they live in areas with more vertical relief and broken sight lines. Marmots on the steppes tend to call more slowly.

Marmots tend to have a highly developed sense of place. Many species of marmots live in stunning alpine settings.

Hoary marmots are grizzled and the name does not reflect their character: some populations of them are monogamous.

Vancouver Island marmots live on Vancouver Island in Canada and are. With fewer than 100 remaining marmots, they are one of the most endangered species in the world. Vancouver Island marmots are chocolate brown with a white spot on their chest. They are one of the larger marmots and are among the most photogenic marmots. The Vancouver Island Marmot website has incredible photographs of Vancouver Island marmots.

In Pakistan there is a species called the golden marmot. Herodotus, reporting from the area where golden marmots now live, noted that great "gold ants" would throw gold out from the ground. This report later drew investigators to study golden marmot behavior. Herodotus reported that people in this area used the marmots to harvest gold. Finally, in November 1996, a French researcher "found" people who still use marmots to locate gold thus solving the "mystery of gold ants". Read about these findings in articles from The New York Times, CNN-On Line, and from Time Magazine. Locals have folktales about how golden marmots got their whistles.

Down South, hunting 'chucks is a popular past-time and there are recipes to cook 'chucks. Mongolians love to eat marmots, prized for their high-protein meat, and have a rich culture of marmot-hunting. For instance, some hunters use horses and tie on "playboy bunny ears" to get closer to marmots. Other hunters do a special dance and twirl a yak-tail to catch their prey's attention and get a better shot.

While marmots often are an important source of summer food for foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, snow leopards, and eagles, marmots themselves, prefer vegetables. Marmots are 99% vegetarian; they have food preferences and some species and individuals prefer certain types of vegetation. They may eat the occasional insect or the occasional piece of roadkill. At the Fruita orchards in Capitol Reef National Park, yellow-bellied marmots eat a lot of fruit growing in old Mormon orchards.

In the Alps, a medicine made from marmot fat is a prized remedy for rheumatoid problems. In the former Soviet Union, marmots are used for fur, medicine, food, and of course observational enjoyment.

Central Asian marmots carry plague, thus the great Russian interest in marmot biology.

Outside Moscow, a world famous fur farm is experimenting with raising marmots for their fur. To date, they've had considerable success breeding them in captivity and selecting for certain fur colors and quality.

People who like woodchucks and other marmots are called "marmotophiles". In Switzerland, monuments are created to marmots. Many countries honor marmots on postage stamps. Comic book stories have been written about some lucky marmots.

People who study woodchucks and other marmots are called "marmoteers" or "marmotologists". There is a big international meeting of marmotologists every three of years. The first was in Italy, the second in France, and the third in Russia. The next meeting will be in Austria in 2000.



Professor Kenneth B. Armitage, Department of Systematics and Ecology, University of Kansas

Barash, D.P. 1989. Marmots. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Bibikov, D.I. In Press 1997. Marmots of the world. New Brehm Book, Germany.

Nowak, R.M. and Paradiso, J.L. 1983. Walker's mammals of the world, 4th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Rue, L.L., III. 1981. Complete guide to game animals. Outdoor Life Books/Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York.

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