Meet Marmota

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011

Since 2009, Alaskans have celebrated a common furry resident of the state each Feb. 2 — the marmot.

Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

It’s fitting. Marmots can be found in many areas of the state whistling away when something or someone gets too close. Their heads can be seen popping in and out of their dens as they busily gather food or tend to rambunctious young ones. But at the same time, creating a day for marmots — instead of the groundhog, which the day is meant to replace — is curious.

Let me explain.

The day, dubbed Marmot Day, falls on the second day in February every year and was backed by Wasilla Republican Sen. Linda Menard. She hoped the state would use the day to create educational activities around the animal, and it was more fitting to call the day Marmot Day instead of Groundhog Day due to the prevalence of the animal in the state. It was first introduced 20 years ago by her late husband, Sen. Curt Menard, when he was in the Alaska
Legislature.

“Marmot Day can be observed by schools, the zoo, or anyone else,” she said in a committee meeting in 2009. “I think the intention, and what I’m trying to get through is, we have our own unique local hire, and that is the marmot.”

When it comes to education, fostering new opportunities for meaningful curriculum is vital to rooting facts in budding brain cells.

In fact, Riley Woodford, an information officer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the common name for woodchuck is “groundhog.” And additionally, they share the same species name:
marmota.

Sen. Menard acknowledged this and argued, in 2009, that her late husband held a keen interest in having Alaska “use the marmot instead of the groundhog.”

It is, after all, more accurate.

There are three types of marmots found in Alaska — the hoary marmot, the Alaska marmot and the woodchuck. As part of the squirrel family, these are the largest three found in North America.

Generally, marmots and woodchucks — a.k.a. groundhogs — can be characterized by their broad, short heads, short legs, small ears, thick and densely furred bodies, and front paws nicely clawed for digging burrows. They reach peak weight at the end of summer and hibernate all winter. It’s not until April or May that they emerge from dens to mate.

So every year, while these animals are sleeping deep in dens all over Alaska, we’re celebrating. Wouldn’t it be more fitting to honor their charismatic ways when they’re gathering grasses among the fireweed, when the lazy males are sunning themselves on fat rocks and the youngsters are boxing like fighters in a ring? Because from May through August that’s what marmots do.

Bob Armstrong, a local naturalist and wildlife photographer, published a children’s book titled “Whistlers of the Mountains” after long observing their behavior during the summer months.

“I’ve spent many, many hours with them. Definitely the female is the one who does all the work,” he said. “The male just sits around and inspects what she does.”

She’ll move the youngsters, gather fresh grass for the den — the chores, if you will. When she’s finished, the males go over to inspect her work.

“It’s maybe not too different from humans in some ways,” Armstrong said.

The youngsters, he said, are the real characters. Their active ways range from wrestling to boxing, and to the unique greeting that led Armstrong to capture his favorite image in the book.

“They’ll be separately feeding and when one sees the other, it will run up to it and touch noses,” he said. “It looks like they’re kissing.”

Armstrong said he’s never seen the adults do it, though it doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur.

Marmot residents of Southeast seem to have made a few adaptations. For instance, Alaska and hoary marmots are commonly found living in den communities on talus slopes, in boulder fields and on rocky outcroppings where they can gain perspective on the surrounding area. Woodchucks prefer loamy soils like those found in the river valleys of the Interior. Yet the many marmots in Southeast Alaska can be found at sea level making dens in the boulders above the high tide line. Armstrong said he knew of marmots, residing near Eagle Beach and in Point Bridget State Park, who have dug dens in the rainforest.

Clearly, they don’t have to be alpine creatures, he said.

However, the lowland marmots of Southeast may be more vulnerable to predation than their alpine-living counterparts.

“Certainly bears dig into the dens after them,” Armstrong said. “And down at sea level it’s hard to find places that bears can’t dig.”

Luckily, bears and marmots both hibernate, though the bear not always as long as the marmot. As September sets in, Armstrong said he stops seeing them and it’s not until late May that they’ll begin to emerge.

Dens are plugged with grass, dirt, rock and feces, after the entire family is inside the underground complex.

“The whole family is in the den complex together, but the male sleeps apart,” Armstrong said. “(The female) sleeps with the yearlings and maybe the young of the year.”

Of course, it’s the marmots’ loud whistles that turn heads.

“They whistle when they feel they’re in danger,” Armstrong said. “If it’s an aerial predator, like a bald eagle, they whistle without exposing their teeth. But, if it’s a ground predator, they whistle and expose their four big teeth, trying to look as vicious as possible.”

They also hiss, squeal, growl, and yip. And when humans are around, marmots will sometimes go silent.

So it’s unfortunate each Feb. 2, when marmots are cozied deep in their dens, we cannot enjoy their charming ways. Yes, photographs are telling, texts thorough, but it’s just not the same as a field trip up the Mount Roberts Tram to see them in action.

“Like all animals, the more you watch them, the more you realize they’re really neat and seem to be having fun in life,” Armstrong said. “We’re really fortunate to have them.”

Yes, we are.

But getting back to Alaska’s Groundhog Day — excuse me — Marmot Day: folklore says if it is cloudy when a groundhog/marmot emerges from its burrow on the aforementioned day, it will leave the burrow, signifying that winter will soon end. If it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow and winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

It’s pretty unlikely the Alaska version of Punxsutawney Phil will emerge on Marmot Day at all. Does that mean each year we’re due for an eternal winter? For Alaska, that may be the most accurate prediction.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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