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North American Marmots, Marmots Elsewhere

Marmots are species of medium-sized robust, short-legged burrowing herbivorous rodents in the genus Marmota, family Sciuridae, order Rodentia. Marmots are closely related to the ground squirrels and gophers. Marmots live in burrows that they dig themselves, or sometimes in the deep crevices of rock piles and talus slopes beneath cliffs. Most species of marmots occur in alpine or arctic tundra or in open forests of North America, Europe, and Asia. The woodchuck or ground-hog of North America is also a familiar species of marmot found in agricultural landscapes within its range.

Marmots have a plump, sturdy body, with a broad head, and small but erect ears. The legs and tail of marmots are short, and their fingers and toes have strong claws, and are useful tools for digging burrows. Marmots commonly line their subterranean dens with dried grasses and other haylike materials. Marmots are rather slow, waddling animals, and they do not like to venture very far from the protection of their burrows and dens. Marmots can climb rock faces and piles quite well. The pelage of marmots is short but thick, and is commonly brown or blackish colored.

Marmots often sit up on their haunches, and in this position they survey their domain for dangerous predators. Marmots are rather vocal animals, emitting loud, harsh squeaks and squeals as warnings whenever they perceive a potential predator to be nearby. As soon as any marmot hears the squeak of another marmot, it dashes back to the protection of its burrow. Marmots also squeak when communicating with each other, or if they are injured. Marmots are loosely social animals, sometimes living in open colonies with as many as tens of animals living in a communal maze of interconnected burrows.

Marmots are herbivores, eating the above-ground tissues and tubers of a wide range of herbaceous plants, as well as buds, flowers, leaves, and young shoots of shrubs. They store food in their dens, some of which is consumed during the wintertime.

A hoary marmot in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. JLM Visuals. Reproduced by permission.

Marmots gain weight through the growing season, and are very fat when they go into hibernation at the onset of winter. The hibernation occurs in dens that are thickly haylined for insulation, and the entrance to their den is plugged with hay or dirt at this time. Some alpine populations of marmots migrate to traditional winter-den sites lower in altitude than their summer range. Marmots typically winter in tightly huddling family groups. Marmots may occasionally waken from their deep sleep to feed, sometimes outside if the day is relatively warm and sunny.

Various animals are predators of marmots, including golden eagles, hawks, foxes, and coyotes. Humans are also predators of marmots in some parts of their range, using the animals as a source of meat, and sometimes as a source of medicinal oils.

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