Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II June-July 1984 No. 4

Nature Notes is issued bimonthly by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William Dengler
Chief Naturalist
Neal G. Guse


Picture yourself eating nearly half your body weight in food daily--as much as you can hold of all your favourite goodies. When you're not eating you sun-bathe or just site and do nothing at all. Picture yourself doing that all summer long. Now picture what you'll look like at the end of the season. Well, so does the marmot.


About half a yard long, an adult marmot averages five to twelve pounds in weight. It enters its winter hibernation absolutely, totally obese; it emerges, come spring, slim and macho, albeit with a baggy, ill-fitting hide. The sleep is a true hibernation, incidentally, wherein the rodent teeth and nails cease growing and the animal's body temperature drops to somewhere around 38°F. Even with the reduced caloric requirements of this deep hibernation, the marmot needs all the avoirdupois it can get to survive the six or seven months of winter in its high country home near treeline.

Incredibly attractive and sexy in his slim spring persona, the male sallies forth very early, before the snow has melted or green growth has appeared. He presents himself hopefully at the doors of ladies' burrows until one of them invites him in. He lives with her a few idyllic months, but she gives him the boot before her litter of four to six babies is born in latter May. By the end of summer the little marmots will be mature enough to fend for themselves and set up house keeping independently.

And "independently" it is, for the marmot is an intriguing mix of colonial and solitary. Except for that brief fling in early spring, each marmot lives separately in a den of its own, yet in the company of other marmots with their single-person dwellings. Top choice for marmot residential locations is a rock pile or slide near a meadow, where predators cannot dig well. The meadow, of course, is for culinary purposes. Strictly vegetarian, the marmot rarely turns down anything green or blooming.

On sunny days the marmot gorges itself to the bursting point. Then it drags its over-eater's paunch to some nearby rock or outcrop, there to sit and keep watch. That's another reason marmots like meadows; the marmot depends upon its sharp vision for defense, and in broad, open country it can spot interlopers from afar. And with its unique, shrill whistle it will warn the whole blankety-blank world that you are in the area.

If you do perchance spot a marmot, you'll be looking at a pudgy, waddling (top speed ten mph sustainable for less than a minute), thick-set rodent with small ears and a ten-inch tail. Its colour will be variations on grey, black and white here in Mount Rainier, for here the Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) is our high-country member of Overeaters Unanimous. On the east side of the state, in the Sierras and in the Rockies, the chocolate-brown Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) prevails. Over on the Olympic peninsula you'll be looking at a species unique to that small area, the Olympic Marmot (Marmota olympus) (to all but the taxonomists, it looks like any other somewhat grizzled brown marmot). Vancouver Island has its own indigenous species, the dark brown Marmota vancouverensis. If you once lived in the eastern US or Canada, all these marmots will look to you pretty much like a plain old woodchuck (Marmota monax) a.k.a. ground hog. Small wonder--they're all of the same clan. And they all pig out, too; ask any eastern farmer plagued by woodchucks in his fence rows.

Ah, but our own Hoary Marmot is special. Of the marmots, he has adapted best to winter extremes; he ranges all the way to the North Slope and Brooks Range, well within the Arctic Circle. He occupies a niche few other animals can hope to fill, and he keeps several predators (coyotes, wolves, etc.,) happy in the process.

Besides: Any animal is special who possesses the good taste and common sense to live here at Mount Rainier.

Sandy Dengler

<<< Previous
> Cover <
Next >>>