Author Archives: Cheyney

Bed time and season’s end

Well, it had to happen sometime – the 2015 Vancouver Island marmot field season has officially come to an end. We thought this would be the perfect time to review some of our activities and findings this past summer. It was a crazy ride!

Milestones:
Early emergence – The marmots at some colonies were up and about before we even thought to go looking for them! In most years, marmots emerge in May or June, but this year, marmots at one colony in the Nanaimo Lakes region were up and running (literally!) in the first week of April.

Releases – In June and July, we released 24 captive-bred marmots into the wild. Thirteen were released on Mt. Washington for pre-conditioning or for breeding purposes, and eleven were released directly into beautiful Strathcona Provincial Park.

Translocations – To give those eleven captive-bred marmots some experienced buddies to teach them how to live in the wild, we mixed them into groups with 4 pre-conditioned marmots (captive-bred but already had one year of wild experience) and 12 wild-born marmots. These marmot groups were released at seven locations in Strathcona Provincial Park.

Reproduction – We counted at least 35 pups in the Nanaimo Lakes region, 9 pups on Mt. Washington or in Forbidden Plateau, 4 pups in Western Strathcona, and 4 pups at one of our experimental colonies in Clayoquot Plateau Provincial Park. That adds up to a grand total of 52 pups seen in the wild in 2015!

Dispersal – Every year, some teenage marmots decide to leave their natal colony to find and join a new colony where they can breed. This process is incredibly important for the health and persistence of wild marmot populations. We were excited to confirm at least 4 successful dispersals in Nanaimo Lakes, 6 in Forbidden Plateau, and 2 in Western Strathcona.

Early hibernation – After such a mild winter and spring, the marmots gained weight early and quickly this summer. By August 20, we found marmots preparing for the 2015-16 hibernation. Vancouver Island marmots are excellent hibernators, so for the marmots that survived to hibernation, there is a very good chance that we’ll see them again next year. In fact, we’re already looking forward to it!

Biggest surprise of 2015 – This award clearly goes to Alan, the Vancouver Island marmot that nearly became a Pacific Ocean marmot when he made his home at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre!

We hope that you enjoyed hearing about our recovery efforts this past season. Next year’s field season will start in May 2016, and if this year was any indication, there are sure to be all kinds of exciting discoveries. Until then, we wish you a warm and cozy hibernation!

 

Marmot surveys – by helicopter

Vancouver Island has mountains galore, but these mountains really vary in their size, spread, and accessibility. In the Nanaimo Lakes region, for instance, there are over a dozen mountains with Vancouver Island marmot colonies where field crew can drive close enough to survey the marmots in a single day. In Strathcona Provincial Park, however, the mountains are big – really big – and most colonies can’t be reached so quickly. In places like this, we rely on helicopters to help us monitor marmot survival and location. And it’s a good thing, too, because marmots do not always stay where we release them! Like many captive-bred or translocated animals that are released into new environments, marmots like to explore their new habitat. Some even explore their way off a mountain and up a new one! Last week, we conducted our end-of-season telemetry flights for the colonies in Strathcona Provincial Park, and we detected pairs of marmots on two completely new mountains. Although we would have liked the marmots to stay where we released them, this is still really exciting news. Biologists agree that one of the keys to the recovery of the Vancouver Island marmot is making sure that colonies are numerous and widely distributed, in order to protect them from catastrophic events. So even though these marmots make us work harder to find them, this expanding distribution is truly a positive sign for their recovery.

Nest boxes for newbies

If you have ever wandered around Mt. Washington in the summer months, you may have come across a plywood box with a hole in the front and wondered what you were looking at. If that’s the case, you discovered a Vancouver Island marmot nest box! Vancouver Island marmots are currently bred at the Toronto and Calgary Zoos, which have housed and bred marmots for the recovery program since 1997 and 1998, respectively. When in captivity, marmots don’t have access to the deep soils in which they would typically dig burrows; instead, they are given nest boxes to use. Captive marmots use nest boxes just like wild marmots use burrows – they sleep in them, raise their young in them, and hide in them.

Nest boxes actually have two holes, one in the front and one in the back. So when captive-bred marmots are released to the wild, they are released into a nest box that is connected to a true marmot burrow. When field crew install nest boxes, they line them with bedding used by the marmots in captivity so that the nest box will smell like home, and they provide a few snacks to help them get through the first day. And as soon as the last marmot is released through the nest box and into the burrow, the entrance door is temporarily blocked by a piece of wood or a rock (as shown in the photo). This usually happens for just a few minutes, to encourage the marmots to explore the burrow and learn that it is safe before they start exploring the rest of their new habitat. Captive-bred marmots may continue to use their nest box to access this burrow, but they will no longer sleep in it – once they are in the wild, captive-bred marmots sleep underground, too.

The nest boxes used in 2015 have now been removed from the wild in preparation for winter. But if your eyes are sharp enough to see a nest box in the future, be sure to look out for its new residents – Vancouver Island marmots!

Photo credit: Patrick Reid.

Pupdate!

Field crew have had their work cut out for them this season, particularly when it comes to counting pups. Those energetic young marmots rarely sit still, hang out in groups, and are experts at hiding behind rocks or ducking under vegetation. This year’s vegetation has grown even taller than usual, so with both pups and people peering through all the fireweed and blueberries, pup-counting must look like one big game of hide-and-seek!

At last count, reproduction was much stronger in Nanaimo Lakes this summer, with litters recorded on at least eight different mountains. At least three females on Mt. Washington bred, too, which means that next year we could translocate some more wild-born yearlings from Mt. Washington into Strathcona Provincial Park. We haven’t completed our pup counts for the season, but when our final numbers are in, we will be sure to share our pup news with you. Everyone loves a good pupdate!

Photo credit: John Deal.

Family matters

There is a saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child. This might also be true when it comes to marmot pups! Vancouver Island marmot families hibernate together, and we suspect that the older adult marmots and siblings use their own body heat to keep the pups warm over winter. But pup-care by grandparents or siblings might start even sooner. We often see older females and their daughters playing with the same litter of pups, or taking turns watching over a single litter. Typical litters include 3-5 pups, so if there are more pups than that, then we assume there may be two litters. But if there are just a few pups, we have to wonder – was it the older female that bred, or the younger one? Or did both females wean tiny litters? We don’t always know the answers to these questions, but whatever the case, we’re sure that for Vancouver Island marmots, family is a good thing!

This photo shows a pup with 9yo Nicola, its doting grandma (we think!)

Photo credit: John Deal

 

 

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