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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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Translocation station

Mt. Washington is a remarkable place, and not only for its view into beautiful Strathcona Provincial Park. Mt. Washington is also one of the largest and most successful wild colonies for the Vancouver Island marmot. Marmots have lived on this mountain since the 1940’s, well before the ski resort even existed. Back then, marmots spent most of their time on the north and east sides of the mountain, where there were cliffs and talus piles and fewer trees. When Mount Washington Alpine Resort cleared some ski runs on the west side of the ridge, the marmots happily moved in – and the marmot colony has been booming ever since! In every year since 2011, there have been more than a dozen pups born on Mt. Washington, which has given us a new tool to help with recovery efforts in this region.

Back in 2007, the recovery project began releasing captive-bred marmots into the Buttle Lake area to re-establish colonies of Vancouver Island marmots at historic locations in Strathcona Provincial Park. At first, all marmots released in Strathcona were captive-bred, with no wild experience until after their release. But in recent years, Mt. Washington has been so great at producing pups that some wild-born marmots became available to be moved into Strathcona. We also began releasing some captive-bred marmots into the wild colony on Mt. Washington the summer before we wanted them to live in Strathcona. This gave those marmots a whole year of practice at being a wild marmot. (As the photo shows, the tricky part was recapturing them after a year of freedom!)

We have just finished this year’s releases and translocations. We released 13 captive-bred marmots on Mt. Washington for a year of pre-conditioning, in the hopes of moving some of them into Strathcona in 2016. And in the Buttle Lake area, we released 11 captive-bred marmots and translocated 4 pre-conditioned marmots and 12 wild-born marmots to existing fledgling colonies. Our goal is to evaluate which experience level survives and reproduces best in Strathcona. And after all these marmot movements, there is no doubt about it – for the Vancouver Island marmot, Mt. Washington is one amazing translocation station!

*The Vancouver Island Marmot – Buttle Lake Supplementation and Monitoring Project is funded by the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP). The FWCP is a partnership between BC Hydro, the Province of B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations and public stakeholders to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by the construction of BC Hydro dams.

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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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Thank you to the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and everyone who came to the presentation last night in Courtenay. In particular, thank you sharing your marmot sightings and stories with me!

Next up is a presentation for Cowichan Valley Naturalists with Sally Leigh-Spencer, co-author of the upcoming Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Strategy and I in April. Assuming it has stopped snowing by then!
- Adam Taylor
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The Strathcona Wilderness Institute is hosting the Marmot Recovery Foundation's Executive Director this Sunday in Courtenay! Learn about the history of the marmot recovery project, the marmot's current status, and plans for the season ahead.

We'd love to see you there, but if you can't make it Adam will be speaking again in April for the Cowichan Valley Naturalists, and of course we will post news here as well!
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On February 26th at 7.00 pm in the Rotary Room, Florence Filberg Centre in Courtenay, SWI is presenting an illustrated talk by Adam Taylor, the executive Directors of the Vancouver Island Marmot Reco...

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Thank you to people from GROWLS and Gabriola Island who hosted a presentation on the marmot's recovery last night. Beautiful island and wonderful people! ... See MoreSee Less

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