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1873 - Santa Barbara lawyers Charles Fernald and J.T. Richards purchase Rancho San Francisco for $33,000 (75 cents an acre) in a sheriff's sale [story]


Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 6, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugWhile it makes little sense to base the end of winter on a groundhog, the difference between a groundhog and a marmot can be confusing – and don’t even think about adding in the woodchuck. The true groundhog lives on the eastern side of the U.S.; the animal we see in the Sierras is a yellow-bellied marmot.

Since 2010, Alaska has celebrated Feb. 2 “Marmot Day” to recognize the marmot in that state, and they do not want to hear about Groundhog Day.

The origin of the name “marmot” is uncertain, but it might come from the Latin “mus montanus,” which means mountain mouse.

The first time I was near a marmot, I did not see it, but rather heard a sharp whistle. I was hiking in Kings Canyon in the Sierras, and the loud whistle came from something I did not know. I knew it wasn’t a bird, but the sound was close by. Then, suddenly, I saw a marmot sunning itself on a log while still making the alarm whistle to tell the rest of the colony a human was near.

marmot1It was love at first sight for me, of course. There is always a certain magic when you see an animal for the first time, and it looked so round and content with life. It quickly disappeared inside the log. But for me, the marmot became the symbol of life in the Sierras in the summertime.

Marmots prefer to live on rocky outcrops and slopes with grass, but they also need a source of water. They are usually found around an elevation of 6,600 feet, where they build a burrow deep in the ground, 16 to 23 feet deep. The burrow has many long tunnels where they raise their young and hibernate in winter.

They are rodents, with a robust body, strong shoulders (all that digging, I guess) and dense fur. The color of their fur varies according to the species, and they molt during the summer. They have yellow speckles on the sides of their neck, white between the eyes and straight hair with white tips.

They spend 80 percent of their life underground during their winter hibernation, which can start as early as September and last until May, so it is important for them to fatten up during the summer. They are herbivorous, and in the fall they look for seeds with a high fat content. They stay away from plants that would be toxic for them; they know not to eat them.

Let’s go back to their communication system. They have three main methods: a whistle, an undulating scream for alert (both are pretty loud) plus tooth chatter for intimidation.

marmot3They can live in colonies or as single or paired animals, and they are able to reproduce when they are 2 years old. They breed only one time per year, which usually happens one or two weeks after they wake up from their hibernation. The gestation lasts 30 days, and they can produce three to eight pups, with a average litter of four or five. The mother nurses the pups for three weeks. After that, the pups come out of the burrow, but a strong bond remains for a while, especially if they live in a colony.

That part I find really interesting. If they live in a colony, they have a whole social system with a lot of social interaction: playing, grooming each other, even greeting each other – but also fighting, chasing each other and bickering. They seem to be friendlier when they have lived a long time together, having shared the same burrow for a least one year.

Of course, there is always a good amount of hostility between males, and the yearlings have to leave the colony. However, if there are a lot of yearlings and they are underweight, they are accepted for a longer time by the adults, with a high level of amicable behavior between the two groups.

It sounds so idyllic.

Their life span is 13 to 15 years in the wild. Many deaths happen during hibernation and when the young try to survive on their own. Their predators are coyotes, badgers, black bears and golden eagles.

Marmots are not under any threat of disappearing, so that is good news. Since they are known carriers of the plague, you shouldn’t attempt to pet them – but they would be long gone before you got close, anyway.

I find them to be cheerful little round creatures that always seem to live in beautiful surroundings up in the mountains. Hearing their loud whistle for the first time is one  of my cherished memories.

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

marmot2

 

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