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Updates from the Team

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!

 

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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.

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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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Vancouver Island marmots are emerging from hibernation. This is wonderful news, but also a challenging time of year for the marmots. As they recover from 7 months of sleep, the marmots rely on the last of their stored energy reserves. Once they have reinvigorated their digestive system, they are able to find food, even in the snow covered mountains. Conditions in the alpine this year are fairly normal, despite the poor weather we have had at lower elevations.

We have put out feeders, targeted to help females improve their body condition rapidly. In turn, we hope they will breed more often than they would without help.

The BBC did a great segment on the challenge Vancouver Island marmots face this time of year:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svm6yqKx-Go
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Our first marmot rescue of the season is complete!

Late last year, we learned of a family of Vancouver Island marmots that established themselves near Knight Lake. We knew from past experience that they would not survive long low elevation, unsuitable habitat and sought to capture and relocate them. We were able to catch two pups and the father, but the mother and another pup eluded us. With winter coming, we struggled to decide how to give these marmots, especially the breeding age female, the best survival chance possible. In the end we made the decision to release the father back to the cutblock with a transmitter that would enable us to track him and his family again in the spring. This meant that we could follow up as early as possible in the spring to get them out.

This year, by tracking the transmitter, our crew was able to find the marmots in the spring snow. Our veterinarian, Malcolm McAdie, with crew members Norberto and Steve, snowshoed in and captured the mother. We’ll return once a bit more snow has melted to capture the father and other pup. Malcolm, Norberto, and Steve hiked the mother out – not an easy task with a marmot on your back! She will be released to a marmot
colony later this summer, hopefully with her yearling and the father.

By the way, the mother is the first marmot to be named this year. First on our name-a-marmot winners list was Vanna. Given where she was recovered from, we have dubbed her Vanna Knight!
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The marmots are starting to emerge from their burrows! We've spotted an opened burrow on Mt Washington, and then one of our Field Crew, Jake, spotted these wonderful marmot tracks on Mt Albert Edward in Strathcona Park! The season is just beginning, and many of the marmots are still in hibernation, but we are excited to see these first signs of emergence. ... See MoreSee Less

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