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Pups Born In Captivity – 2015

Fifteen new marmot pups are facing a brighter future.

The Vancouver Island marmot captive population serves two important and distinct purposes. First, it is a safety-net or life-boat population to protect the species from the threat of extinction, and secondly it produces healthy new recruits, like the pups born this spring ready for release in 2016, to rebuild the wild populations.

Captive breeding is an intensive means to rescue an endangered species from the brink of extinction before it is too late to intervene. Fortunately for the Vancouver Island marmot it was not too late and the release of captive-born recruits is succeeding to increase the population. Of course numbers aren’t the complete story. There are many other obstacles for the marmots to overcome before they can be declared safely recovered.

The captive population is carefully maintained to protect its genetic diversity. Marmots are selected for breeding, or release to the wild, based on their relative genetic importance and kinship (to avoid inbreeding). This careful management has retained over 96% of the original founders’ genetic diversity.

The original 55 wild-born founders were captured between 1997 and 2004. Since the birth of the very first Vancouver Island marmot pups in captivity in 2000, 167 weaned litters have been born totalling 566 pups.

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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.

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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.

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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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What colour are marmots?

Vancouver Island marmots are usually described as having dark brown fur. But this picture from photographer John Deal shows that it would be quite a challenge to describe marmots using only a single color!

When marmot pups first come above ground, their fur has never seen the sun, and so they are a uniform shade of dark brown with white around their nose and on their stomach, chest, and sometimes on their forehead. As they spend more and more time above ground, their dark brown fur is gradually faded to a lighter cinnamon colour. At this stage, it is still very challenging to tell them apart! When marmots are two years old, they start a process called “molting,” which replaces their light, faded fur with new, dark fur. This usually happens starting near their noses and spreading slowly backwards to the tip of their tail. Two-year olds can look quite silly – their head, neck, upper arms and back will look dark, but their bottom half might look like they are wearing bright orange pants! Adults can look even more unique, with a molt pattern made entirely of patches of fur of different ages and colours.

This photograph shows a 4yo female named Hollis. I wonder what she’ll look like next year!

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We are looking forward to this event at the University of Victoria with some great organizations doing wonderful work! ... See MoreSee Less

After getting wild on Wednesday get your think on Thursday!

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