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Updates from the Team

Cue the Great Pup Count of 2015!

Field crew in the Nanaimo Lakes region documented this year’s first pup litter on June 23, 2015. This was an early detection for pups, which are rarely seen above ground before the first week of July. We suspect this is a consequence of a very early, mild spring. So far, field crew have counted 14 pups in the wild, but they will continue to count pups through July and August. We hope that they will see many more!

You can recognize Vancouver Island marmot pups by their small size, dark, fluffy fur, and by their feet, which look far too big for their bodies. Pups are usually seen in litters of three or four, and (like most baby animals!) seem to have a hard time sitting still for more than a minute or two.

(Photo by Hobbs Photo Images Co.)

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Ecosystem engineers

Vancouver Island marmots are special for many different reasons, and especially for their unique ecological role in the alpine and subalpine of Vancouver Island. The Vancouver Island marmot is the only large, burrowing mammal that lives in this habitat. By digging burrows, marmots create underground tunnels that provide a cool, dark place to hide for a variety of organisms, including insects, snakes, and amphibians like the Western Toad in this photo, pictured entering a marmot burrow. Burrow excavation also creates huge mounds of soil and rocks that are used by other organisms. We have noticed that sooty grouse especially enjoy taking a dust bath and eating grit from these mounds! Scientists use the term “ecosystem engineer”¹ to describe organisms that create, modify, and maintain habitats. So the next time you come across a marmot burrow, take a moment to think about all the species that might use some part of these amazing structures…all thanks to Vancouver Island marmots!

¹Jones C.G., Lawton, J.H., Shachak, M. 1994. Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos 69, 373-386.

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Alan! Alan! Al!

Scientists at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre were shocked last week when they discovered a most unusual visitor. A Vancouver Island marmot had taken up residence at their facilities, in the foreshore of Bamfield Inlet. The observers reported the sighting to the Marmot Recovery Foundation, and then continued to monitor the marmot’s movements and activities. Apparently, the marmot even found time to start his own Twitterfeed!
     Each spring, a few teenage Vancouver Island marmot leave their birth colonies and travel until they find a new colony to join. Although this marmot didn’t find another colony, he found the next best thing – enthusiastic biologists who wanted to help. And so with assistance from students, staff, and visiting researchers, this wandering marmot was trapped. He was examined by our project veterinarian, who confirmed that he was a 2yo male.
     First thing this morning, the marmot was flown by helicopter to a mountain in the Nanaimo Lakes region and released to an existing colony. We are sure that he was thrilled to be back in the meadows and talus slides where he belongs. Perhaps he’ll even tweet about it! And just in case you happen to see him around…the students named him Alan. But before you start shouting his name, you’d better make sure that you’re not looking at Steve. We hear they look very similar.
     Many thanks to the students, scientists and staff at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. And a special thank you to honorary marmot herders Dr. John Reynolds, Dr. Jason Fisher, Shelby Gill, Kira McLachlin, Evan Perdue, Jonathan Van Elslander, and Jessica Ye.

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Calling all yearlings

Vancouver Island marmots can live for more than ten years, but they grow relatively slowly. This means that it can be fairly easy to recognize marmot pups and yearlings when you see them, because they are noticeably smaller than their older colony members. Their fur is also much more uniform in colour than the patchwork coat worn by adults! Most yearlings are a beautiful, warm cinnamon colour, like the yearling in this post’s photo. Field crew have been visiting marmot colonies and counting yearlings to determine how many of last year’s pups survived to celebrate their first birthday. And the good news? The yearlings that have been observed in the field have been in excellent physical condition, thanks to an early spring, rapid snow melt, and abundant vegetation.

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Vancouver Island marmots on CTV

On a sunny day last week, CTV News pulled on their hiking boots and came out in the field with us for a day of counting marmots. We asked the marmots to put on a special show for them, and wow, did they ever come through! We saw marmots basking in the sun, marmots foraging on vegetation, and marmots ripping up sedges and carrying them back to their burrow for bedding. Not bad for a day trip! The Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Project is working hard to recover this species to a healthy population size and distribution. And although we still have lots to do to protect the species for the long haul, we are so excited about all that we have achieved so far! Have you watched the CTV story?

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Marmot Recovery Foundation

Spot the Marmot! (this one is very hard).

A bit of backstory to this photo: we received a report of a Vancouver Island Marmot on a residential property on Saturday. Field Coordinator Mike Lester went out to have a look and found this frightened guy hanging out in the woodshed. Mike was able to trap the marmot, and transport him to the Tony Barrett Mt Washington Marmot Recovery Centre.

This fellow will be re-released to a colony once he has a clean bill of health.

He is easy to spot once Mike caught him, but see if you can find the marmot's fur in the first photo.
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Happy Father's Day to all our Marmot Dads! Vancouver Island Marmot fathers play an important role in rearing pups. They play guard and teach socialization skills to the energetic youngsters.

We still have another few weeks before we learn who is mom and dad this year, as the young marmots will not emerge from the burrow until early July, but we're hoping for lots of new dads out there!

Thanks to Alena E.S. Conservation & Photography for the photo.
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Field Coordinator Mike Lester spent part of his Sunday catching this Yellow-bellied Marmot that was accidentally transported to Nanaimo. This marmot is now at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre waiting for transportation back to the Interior.

Why don't we want marmot tourists on the Island? First, marmots are most likely to thrive in areas where there are others of their species. Second, we don't want to transmit diseases between marmots species that would not normally encounter each other.

Just how are these Yellow-bellied Marmots getting to the Island? We don't know for sure, but we suspect they arrive in construction materials and large hay bales that may look like good burrows. Once these items start to move, the marmot may just hunker down for the ride. Another possibility is that they crawl into the underside of cars, which Yellow-bellied Marmots are known to do. Again, they may just hunker down until the end of the trip.

Regardless of whether it is a Vancouver Island Marmot or Yellow-bellied, if you see a marmot on Vancouver Island, let us know!
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