Marmots (genus Marmota) are giant ground squirrels found primarily in North America and Eurasia. There are 14 species of them. According to Encyclopedia Britannica: “These rodents are large and heavy, weighing 3 to 7 kilograms (6.6 to 15.4 pounds), depending upon the species. Marmots are well suited for life in cold environments and have small fur-covered ears, short, stocky legs, and strong claws for digging. Length of the bulky body is 30 to 60 centimeters (11.8 to 23.6 inches), and the short, bushy tail is 10 to 25 centimeters long. Their long, thick fur is slightly coarse and may be yellowish brown (usually frosted with buff white), brown.
According to marmotburrow blog: “All marmots live in the northern hemisphere. Marmots live in a variety of social systems ranging from the mostly solitary groundhog to those highly social species where offspring from several years live together with their parents and, in the case of alpine marmots, may help rear younger siblings. When alarmed by predators (raptors, carnivores, people) all marmots whistle or chirp. These species-specific vocalizations are refered to as alarm calls. [Source: marmotburrow.ucla.edu]
Species of Marmots in Central Asia
Gray or Altai marmot (Marmota baibacina) lives in the high alpine areas of the Altai mountains of Central Asia. Active about five months a year, the Altai marmot matures slowly and doesn't breed for the first three years. About half the adult females breed. Litters, while large (about six pups), suffer high first year mortality — less than 20 percent of the pups born one year survive to the next. Populations are declining. They are reported to have a single alarm call. They appear to hybridize with M. sibirica in Mongolia; hybrid vocalizations are reported to contain elements of both species' calls. [Source: marmotburrow.ucla.edu]
Bobac or steppe marmot (Marmota bobac) are widely distributed in the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan and range as far west as Central Europe. According to Prof. Kenneth Armitage, the steppe marmot is a large analog of the North American prairie dog. With a particularly round paunch, and a laid-back alert posture, steppe marmots would feel at home in Colorado. Unlike most other species, steppe marmots prosper on rolling grasslands and on the edge of cultivated fields. Active for about five and a half months each year, dispersers leave their natal social group after their second hibernation. Litter sizes average a little over five, and it takes at least three years to reach sexual maturity. About 60 percent of adult females breed in a given year. They have a single alarm call, but Prof. Alexander Nikolskii's long-term studies have demonstrated that steppe marmots call faster when they live in steep terrain and slower when they live in flatter terrain. Steppe marmots have served as a natural "food" reservoir that saved many Russians from starving to death during periodic famines over the last hundred years, and their fur is used to make hats and the occasional coat. Outside Moscow, a fur-farm is experimenting with breeding steppe marmots in captivity for captive fur production.
Menzbier's marmot (Marmota menzbieri) lives in the western Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. Not much is known about Menzbier's marmots. They are active about four months a year, litter sizes are small, about two and a half pups, and they are reported to produce a single alarm call.
Mongolian marmot (Marmota sibirica) lives in Mongolia, Manchuria, Transbaikal. Known as Tarvaga in Mongolian and Tarbagan in Russian, this animal is active about six months a year but it still takes at least three years to mature and presumably disperse. About half the females breed in a given year and litter sizes are small, averaging 3-4 pups (although at one study site, litters averaged 7 pups!). They have a single alarm call, but there is also individual variability. Mongolians prize their meat and oil, and export their fur to Russia. Hunting tarvaga is a major pastime and according to Dr. Batbold, a Mongolian marmot expert, managing hunting will prove to be a challenge in the future. Hunters shoot them from horseback and camouflage themselves with large "bunny-like" ears and also "dance" and wave a white yak-tail to get the marmots to stand up and be more easily shot. Marmots in some parts of Mongolia are subject to plague. Interestingly, Dr. Batbold's research has shown that plague-resistant populations have a higher body temperature. Tarvaga have a single alarm call, reminisent of their close relatives (M. bobac and M. babacina).
Species of Marmots in the Himalayas
Long-tailed, Golden, or Red marmot (Marmota caudata) live in high alpine meadows in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Tien Shen mountains of Central Asia. Long-tailed and golden marmots live in high alpine meadows often grazed by domestic sheep, goats, and yaks. They are only active about four and a half months each year and mature slowly. Animals do not leave their natal group for at least three years. Groups are generally comprised of a breeding pair and non-dispersing offspring. When there are multiple adults, groups are male biased. Older animals may move between social groups. When a new male joins a social group young pups are often killed. This sort of male infanticide has also been documented in alpine marmots. Breeding is infrequent: only 14 percent of the adult females bred annually at a site in Northern Pakistan. Golden marmots produce a single alarm call and vary the number of times they call according to risk. This is a 5-note alarm call. Interestingly, and perhaps suggestive of speciation in action, long-tailed marmots in the northern part of their range have a slightly different alarm call. [Source: marmotburrow.ucla.edu]
Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana) lives in Himalayan mountains of Nepal, parts of India, and parts of Tibet. It is one of the highest living mammals in the world. Himalayan marmots are found from 4000 meters to the upper edge of the vegetated zone (ca 5500 m) in the mountains of Nepal, parts of India, and parts of Tibet. A subspecies of the Himalayan marmot, M. himalyana robusta, is one of the largest marmots and may weigh over six kilograms. Virtually nothing is known about this species who goes by the common name "Tibetan snow pig".
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Grey marmots inhabit the Altai Mountain range in western Siberia (Russia), western Mongolia, eastern Kazakhstan and northern China. Their geographic range also spans into the Tian Shan Mountain range of southeastern Kazakhstan, eastern Kyrgyzstan, and northwestern China. [Source: Lucas McGann and Christopher Yahnke, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]
“Grey marmots living in temperate climates occupy many different habitats including tundra, taiga, grassland and mountains. Mountain habitats include both the Altai Mountain Range and the Tian Shan Mountain range up to 4,000 meters. In these mountainous habitats grey marmots will be found near the top of ridges in cases where it is living in sympatry with another other species of marmots including Tarbagan marmots. A large lower elevation grassland habitat grey marmost inhabit is located on the east and west of Issyk Kul, a very large lake in Kyrgyzstan. ~
“Grey Marmots are one of the largest marmots found in Asia. Their total length is 59.0 centimeters to 80.5 centimeters, with a short tail (13 centimeters to 15 centimeters) that accounts for less than a third of their head-body length. The a weight of an adult on average varies from 4.25 kilograms to 6.5 kilograms. They have a light greyish-brown fur covering their face all the way back to the ears where it fades into thick sandy colored base coat with nearly black tips of fur covering most of the pelt on their back. This gives their dorsal side a greyish appearance and is also how they got their common name, grey marmot. Their tails, as stated before, are relatively short compared to their body and are the same color as the base coat except for a dark brown-black tip. They are low to the ground with short thick legs and have small fur-covered ears. Little is known about the life span of grey marmots in the wild or in captivity. However other species of marmots can live on average 12 to 14 years in the wild, with reports of up to 18 years. ~
Gray Marmot Reproduction
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Although not much is known about the mating system of grey marmots, most marmot groups at similar latitudes were always thought be monogamous due to a lack of resources and food. A 2006 study determined that this was not true in another species of marmots that resides at a similar latitude. The study showed that smaller social groups of marmots proved to be monogamous while marmots in large social groups were promiscuous. [Source: Lucas McGann and Christopher Yahnke, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]
“Mating among grey marmots only occurs once a year, for about a month, starting in the beginning of May and ending in the beginning of June. Only after they have reached a mature age (3 years) will they begin mating. Just half of mature females will end up mating each year. After a pair has mated the female undergoes a 40 day gestation period and a live birth of a litter, usually consisting of 2 to 6 pups. ~
“After the female has given birth she will lactate for 30 days to feed her young, staying with them in the burrow for a majority of time. There is no documentation of direct paternal care by grey marmot males. ~
Gray Marmot Behavior
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Grey marmots are very social mammals and live in colonies consisting of anywhere from 6 to 20 individuals. These groups tend to be sessile, staying in one area, hibernating instead of migrating. Hibernation usually starts in the time frame from late August to early October and lasts 7 to 8 months. Summer burrows usually contain 2 to 3 individuals and tend not to be as deep in the ground as winter burrows. Winter burrows are dug deeper to help keep the occupants warm during hibernation. Also winter burrows can house up to 10 individuals which helps to keep the occupants warm with added body heat. [Source: Lucas McGann and Christopher Yahnke, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]
“During the summer months grey marmots are diurnal feeding during the day. Grey marmots are not as territorial as their close relatives Tarbagan marmots, with whom they live in close sympatry. Grey marmots have a relatively small home range of .01 to .05 square kilometers, which is similar to its more territorial relatives, Tarbagan marmots (.02 to .06 square kilometers).
“Grey marmots communicate acoustically with alarms calls that indicate to other members of the colony that danger is present. They also communicate nonverbally in times of danger by flagging to the others with their tails. Pointing their tail straight up in the air and then rapidly moving it up and down. Males also rubs his cheek at the entrance of a burrow leaving his scent for mating purposes. ~
Gray Marmot Food Habits and Predation
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Grasses and herbaceous vegetation such as leaves roots and tubers wood, bark, stems flowers and bryophytes lichens make up the majority of the diets of grey marmots. In the spring when new vegetation begins to sprout fringed sagebrush (Artemisia frigida) is a favorite for grey marmots. They are also known to sometimes eat other small animals, but it is not a large part of their diet. [Source: Lucas McGann and Christopher Yahnke, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]
“The dark tips of fur on the ventral side of grey marmot coats give them some camouflage from above. This allows them to blend in with some of the natural colors of the ground helping with predator avoidance from large birds of prey such as eagles and hawks. Also alarm calls and nonverbal "flagging" with their tails is another way grey marmots avoid birds of prey, as well as terrestrial predators. ~
“Known Predators include birds of prey (Falconiformes); snow leopards (Uncia uncia); brown bears (Ursus arctos); steppe cats (Felidae); snakes (Reptilia); foxes (Vulpes); wolves (Canidae)
Humans and Gray Marmot Conservation and Ecosystem Roles
Grey marmots are a keystone species in the ecosystem, serving as a food source for many different types of predators. Also the burrows dug out by them are used by other animals, such as rattle snakes, that use the burrows to hide in and ambush their prey. Grey marmots are also a host to many parasites like mites, ticks, tapeworms, and fleas. [Source: Lucas McGann and Christopher Yahnke, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan, animaldiversity.org ~]
“Grey marmots aren't only consumed by birds of prey and wild animals, but is a part of the diets for humans living in the region. Farmers use grey marmots as a source of food and also use some body parts as a source of medicine. People in the region also hunt and trap grey marmots using their pelts for trade. ~
“Tarbagan marmots have been known to carry the Bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) and by living in close sympatry with Tarbagan marmots, grey marmots could be carriers of the plague, as well. They can carry with the disease if they are infected by common parasites such as ticks or fleas. Humans using grey marmots as a food source could get the disease if they consume infected meat. ~
“IUCN Red List considers grey marmots as Lower Risk or Least Concern on its list with an estimated population of 600,000 individuals in Mongolia alone (approximately 16 percent of the total population). There is a brief hunting season of about 2 months starting on August 11th and lasting through October 15th.” ~
According to Animal Diversity Web: Himalayan marmots (Marmota himalayan) are restricted to high elevation regions of northwestern south Asia and China. In Asia, Himalayan marmots occur across the Himalayan Mountains of India, Nepal, and Pakistan. In China, they are found in several provinces, primarily across the Tibetan Plateau in western, central, and southern portions of the country. [Source: Lacey Padgett and Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan,~]
“Himalayan marmots are found most often between timberline and snowline, at elevations of 3,500 to 5,200 meters. Temperatures in these areas typically range from 8 C to 12 C. Himalayan marmots occur primarily in dry, open habitats, including alpine meadows, grasslands, and deserts. Much of their habitat falls within the Northwestern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows ecoregion. Vegetation in this ecoregion is dominated by stunted evergreen shrubs and birch-dominated forest patches. At higher elevations, this shrub-dominated community shifts to open alpine meadows. This ecoregion is largely protected due to the presence of critically endangered snow leopards. ~
“Like other marmots, Himalayan marmots dig large burrows, which generally restricts them to areas with light-textured and adequately deep soil. The burrows of Himalayan marmots are exceptionally deep, typically ranging from 2.0 to 3.5 meters. In preparation for hibernation, Himalayan marmots dig burrows that are considerably deeper, sometimes reaching depths of 10 meters. These burrows are shared by all members of the colony during hibernation.” ~
Himalayan Marmot Characteristics
According to Animal Diversity Web: Members of the genus Marmota are generally referred to as large ground squirrels. Marmots are large terrestrial rodents with stout limbs and short tails. Himalayan marmots are similar in size to an average house cat. They are generally larger than other marmot species across their native range. Himalayan marmots are particularly stout-bodied and range in length from 475 to 670 mm. They have relatively large skulls, ranging from 96 to 114 milimters in length, and exceptionally large hind feet, which range in length from 76 to 100 mm. Like other marmots, each forefoot has four-toes with long concave claws for burrowing, and each hind foot has five toes. Despite their large body size, Himalayan marmots have shorter tails than many other marmot species. Their tail length ranges from 125 to 150 millimeters, comparable to that of gray marmots. Their ears, ranging from 23 to 30 millimeters in length, are also relatively short compared to other marmot species. [Source: Lacey Padgett and Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan ~]
“Dorsal pelage ranges from yellow to brown, and they often have irregular black or blackish brown spots, particularly on the face and snout. Ventral pelage is buff yellow to russet. Two subspecies of Himalayan marmots have been described: M. himalayana himalayana and M. himalayana robusta. Marmota himalayana robusta is especially large, with individuals reported to weigh over 6 kg. In general, Himalayan marmots range in mass from 4 to 9.2 kg. Sexual dimorphism has not been reported in this species. ~
“Himalayan marmots have an average lifespan of 15 years in the wild. They are rarely held in captivity and thus, there is no information available concerning the average lifespan of individuals under these conditions. Typical lifespans for Marmota species ranges from 12 to 17 years.” ~
Himalayan Marmot Reproduction
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Most marmot species are cooperative breeders, and many species live in family groups consisting of a reproductive territorial pair, subordinate adults, yearlings and young. Although most marmots are monogamous, in some species, females have multiple mates. Special care is provided during hibernation, when other adults aid in social thermoregulation of the young. This may be a form of alloparental care, whereby unrelated adults aid in care of the offspring. [Source: Lacey Padgett and Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan ~]
“All species of marmots (Marmota spp.) reach reproductive maturity by the age of two. However, reproduction typically is delayed another year or more. When marmots reproduce early in the year, it is more physically stressful. Because female marmots do not gain body mass during lactation (and may lose body mass), early reproduction represents a risk, as these individuals must rely on favorable future food availability and weather conditions to sustain their reproductive effort. Reproductive females gain mass at least three weeks later than barren females, but this time period typically is adequate to restore body mass similar to that of barren females. The inability of pregnant females to maximize fattening may lead to reproductive skipping (failure to wean their young). This occurs in most marmot species. ~
“Annual mating in Himalayan marmots occurs during February and March, and gestation lasts up to one month. Like most marmots, Himalayan marmots give birth in late spring and early summer. This coincides with the end or near end of hibernation. Himalayan marmots typically produce 2 to 11 offspring per litter. Variation in litter size often reflects overall population density. When population density is high, females yield an average of 4.8 offspring per litter. In less dense populations, females average 7 pups per litter. After parturition, offspring are weaned over a 15 day period. Once offspring are independent, juveniles maintain permanent residences in their familial communities, which is typical of most marmot species. ~
“Most marmots provide considerable care to their offspring. In many species, such as Olympic marmots, offspring remain in the burrow for at least one month after birth. In Himalayan marmots, milk is provided to the young during the first 15 days of life. Most marmots receive nearly constant care from the mother, both while in the burrow and for several weeks after emerging. After several weeks, offspring of most species are capable of foraging independently. Blumstein and Armitage (1999) discuss similarities and differences in cooperative breeding and alloparental care across marmot species but note that little is known about this aspect of Himalayan marmot reproduction. ~
Himalayan Marmot Behavior
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Like all marmots, Himalayan marmots are diurnal, with activity peaking during morning and late afternoon. All marmots are social, living in colonies of up to 30 individuals. In Himalayan marmots, colony size is largely dependent on resource availability. A visible social interaction among marmots is their greeting, a behavior common to many rodents. This greeting occurs after a period of separation, such as when individuals emerge from their burrows in the morning or afternoon. The greeting consists of a nose-to-nose or nose-to-mouth interaction, but can progress into a nose-to-cheek exchange. Marmots are also known to "play fight". Although these interactions appear aggressive, they typically are not, and the length of play fights varies with age and sex. Mock fights among female marmots and yearlings are typically of longer duration than those among adult males and infants. [Source: Lacey Padgett and Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan ~]
“Himalayan marmots exhibit seasonal variation in behavior. They hibernate for extended periods, typically for 6 to 8 months during the coldest times of the year. They are active in spring, summer, and early autumn. Adult females and yearlings spend more time inside their burrows during late spring and early summer. Adult males spend more time outside their burrows, being alert and presumably scanning for potential predators, until August. By mid- to late-August, both sexes spend increased amounts of time in their burrows. ~
“Marmots have strong tactile senses, well-developed for burrowing. Quick reflexes also allow marmots to respond rapidly to their wide range of environmental influences and social interactions. Marmots are highly alert and rely heavily on visual and auditory senses to alert them to potential predators. Per-capita time spent scanning decreases as colony size increases. For example, Olympic marmots tend to spend less time watching for predators, since they commonly forage in groups. In contrast, individuals that forage alone continually pause, scanning the surrounding environment for predators. In comparison to marmots feeding in groups, individuals spend nearly twice the amount of time watching for predators. Distance from their home burrow also affects alertness. For example, yellow-bellied marmots in close range of their burrows, tend to be less vigilant in scanning their surroundings than those foraging at greater distances. ~
“Himalayan marmots often communicate by whistling or chirping, and using physical behaviors. When a predator is detected, they produce a series of alarm calls, which have been observed in many marmot species. It is unclear if there is a distinct vocalization associated with mating. In some species, such as woodchucks, males attract reproductive females using pheromones. Certain physical interactions, such as nestling and nibbling, indicate an individual is ready and willing mate. Because of their burrowing tendencies, Himalayan marmots are difficult to observe in their natural habitat. As a result, few detailed studies of their mating behavior have been conducted. ~
Himalayan Marmot Food Habits and Predation
According to Animal Diversity Web: Himalayan marmots (M. himalayana) are herbivores that eat leaves roots and tubers seeds, grains, nuts and fruit. Old plant growth is commonly avoided due to the presence of alkaloids, which emit a bitter, metallic taste. Most marmots prefer flowering plants because they are more palatable, and select forage containing higher amounts of protein, fatty acids and minerals. Plant selection differs throughout the year since certain flora species are only available seasonally. Himalayan marmots are sometimes sympatric with livestock (e.g., domesticated yaks) and feed in the same pastures. [Source: Lacey Padgett Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan,~]
“Predators of Himalayan marmots include snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, and large birds of prey like bearded vultures and golden eagles. Himalayan marmots are important prey for snow leopards, and evidence suggests that they make nearly 20 percent of the snow leopard diet. Brown bears may also prey on Himalayan marmots. ~
“Marmots are typically on watch for predators while out of their burrows. Distance from burrow and colony size are correlated with per-capita time spent scanning, as greater distances and smaller colonies results in more time spent scanning. When Himalayan marmots sense a predator approaching, they use a distinct series of calls to alert other members of their group. These alarm calls consist of rapidly repeating sounds, beginning with a low frequency call. Each call typically lasts less than 80 milliseconds. A single series of calls continues for less than 1 second. Alarm calls are repeated usually every 5 to 20 seconds. Alarm calls in Himalayan marmots can be distinguished from those produced by other marmots, as the first and second sounds in each series occur in much more rapid succession. ~
“Known Predators; brown bears (Ursus arctos); snow leopards (Panthera uncia); Tibetan wolves (Canis lupus); bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus); golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). ~
Himalayan Marmot Conservation and Ecosystem Roles
According to Animal Diversity Web: “Himalayan marmots are important prey for snow leopards, which are classified as endangered on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. They are also important prey for a number of other predatory mammals and birds. As burrowing animals, they likely help increased soil aeration and water penetration throughout their geographic range. In addition, abandoned borrows likely serve as habitat for numerous other species of small mammals. There is no information available regarding parasites specific to this species. [Source: Lacey Padgett and Christine Small, Radford University, Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan ~]
“Historically, the flesh of Himalayan marmots reportedly was used in traditional Tibetan medicine, for treatment of renal disease. There are no known adverse effects of Himalayan marmots on humans.
“Although current population trends are unknown, Himalayan marmots are classified as a species of least concern on the IUCN's Red List of THreatened Species. They are locally abundant throughout their geographic range and show no signs of decline. This species occurs in habitats protected for snow leopards, which is classified as endangered by the IUCN. As a result, they are relatively unaffected by human impacts throughout much of their range. ~
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated April 2016