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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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Vancouver Island marmots are on the move

Last week we received this season’s first report of a dispersing marmot. Two forestry workers photographed a marmot on a gravel road in the Nanaimo Lakes region. “Dispersal” is a natural process that happens when a marmot leaves the colony that they were born at, and travels through the landscape to join another colony and start a family. For Vancouver Island marmots, this usually happens at or after age two, when marmots are fully grown and independent but have not yet bred at a site.

From the photos, we could tell that this marmot was known to us because it had two shiny, metal ear tags with numbers on them. We couldn’t quite read the numbers from the photos, but that gave us a great start at figuring out who it might be. We knew that if the marmot had ear tags, it likely also had a working radiotelemetry transmitter. Transmitters send out pulses, and by using a special antenna and receiver and walking in the direction with the loudest pulse, we can track a marmot to a specific location – kind of like a game of “hot or cold”, but with beeps!

We solved the mystery when we confirmed that it was a 2yo wild-born male named Precip. By the time we found him, he had finished his journey and was hiding in a nice, meadowy slide on another marmot mountain. He had traveled 10km from his natal (birth) colony to where he was photographed, and another 5km after that! We wish him all the best at his new colony.

Vancouver Island is a BIG place, so we appreciate your help monitoring this rare and fascinating species. If you see a marmot near a town or road, or if you find a deceased marmot, please let us know!

(Photo credit: J. Araki)

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While it is still early in the year for Vancouver Island marmots, our survey results so far have been positive. Overwinter survival for the marmots has been high, particularly among breeding aged females. This is exactly what we hope to find at this time of year. Later in the summer when pups start to emerge, we will be looking for signs of reproduction – that is to say active pups. We have feeders out at a number of colonies, which we believe may help the marmots reproduce more frequently. Our fingers are crossed that lots of those breeding-aged females have litters!

Many people have been asking about the weather. Vancouver Island has had a particular cold and wet spring, which followed a cold winter! However, it does not seem to have had any negative impact on the marmots. In fact, weather station data suggests that after a few mild alpine springs, this year’s alpine weather was closer to the historic norm.

While there is a lot of work ahead of us this year, this is good news for the start of the season!
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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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