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Updates from the Team

Collaboration to map marmot genetics

More research! The Marmot Recovery Foundation is collaborating with Dr Jamie Gorrell of Vancouver Island University to map the genetics of as much of the captive and wild population as we can get samples from. When complete, this research will help us make more informed choices about which marmots to pair in the captive breeding program and where to release marmots. 

When our recovery effort began, the marmot population was frightening small. At its lowest point, fewer than 30 remained in the wild. With that severe population bottleneck in mind, the captive breeding program’s first priority has been to conserve genetic diversity and minimize inbreeding. But to do that, we have had to make assumptions. For instance, we assume that marmots from distant colonies are not closely related. In the wild, we assume that the male marmot that hibernates with the mother and engages in parenting duties is the father of the pups.

Dr Gorrell’s work will enable us to have a much closer look at the genetics of the marmots, and test whether our assumptions have always been right. If there are areas of concern, for instance a colony where all the marmots are more closely related than we believed (we’re looking you Alan, we know you get around, but just how much getting around have you been up to?), we can take corrective action. For instance, we could release marmots to the site, or even translocate marmots, to give a fresh infusion of needed genes.

We are really excited about Dr Gorrell’s work, and his results will help us better understand the marmots needs.

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New marmot paper: Optimizing release strategies: a stepping‐stone approach to reintroduction

The transition from life in a Zoo-setting to life in the wild is dramatic for our Vancouver Island Marmots. Despite the efforts that the Calgary Zoo,  Toronto Zoo and ourselves make to ensure marmot enclosures resemble the wild, with free access to outdoor spaces, artificial burrows, and rocks and logs to climb and carry, there is no way to truly recreate the boundless spaces, cliffs, and meadows of the marmots’ natural habitat. So it’s amazing to see how quickly the marmots adapt to their home. Often we will see them eating wild vegetation within an hour of release (sometimes it is just minutes before they start sampling the local delicacies).

However, we also know that other elements of the transition are harder. Captive bred marmots tend to go exploring more often than their wild born counterparts, which too often puts them in harm’s way. They have a harder time with their first hibernation too, especially in Strathcona Park where conditions can be harsh. The good news is that if these marmots can make it for a couple years, their survival from then on is just as good as their wild-born relatives.

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Putting the marmots to bed

Time to put the marmots to bed. We’re making our last visits to marmot colonies to pin down hibernacula before winter arrives. Yesterday, the crew paid a “farewell til spring” visit to Haley Bowl.

We try to record exactly where the marmots are hibernating. This helps us avoid sensitive hibernacula when we come to do restoration work after the marmots have gone to sleep.

Knowing where the marmots hibernate also helps us improve our releases and signals who might be producing pups in the spring – marmots that hibernate together (often) stay together. For example, yesterday we learned that Alan and Towhee are hibernating together, and we are hopeful for pups next spring!

At Haley Bowl we learned that all but two of the marmots are underground, and the remaining two (Gary and Anik) are alive and awake. The news is not always that good. On Tuesday at a nearby colony, we found two marmots, Galiano and Saturna, had been predated a cougar.

Here’s hoping for a good winter and great marmot sleeps!

Jordan listens for pings. In addition to helping us pin down the marmots, the ping rate tells us the marmot’s body temperature, which we use to deduce whether the marmot is awake or in hibernation.

Muffin’s hiberculum is located! It does not look like much from the outside, but we record the coordinates for future reference.

Most field days recently have been wet, gray, and cold. But Haley Bowl gifted us with sun and crisp air on our send off visit. We are not planning any restoration at Haley, so this is goodbye until year – not a bad farewell!

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September Marmot of the Month – Meet Nicola

Meet Nicola, September’s Marmot of the Month. At 12 years old, Nicola is the eldest known wild Vancouver Island Marmot. She is now blind in one eye, and the other is becoming occluded by a cataract. Her coat shows the wear and tear of the years. Yet, amazingly, not only is she still alive, but producing pups. This year she had another litter at Mount Washington, making her truly a mother of marmots.

To those who work with her, Nicola is known as a laid-back troublemaker. She is known to wander down off the slopes of her Mount Washington home into the village area in search of… something, we aren’t sure what. However, she is so fond of peanut butter that catching her is never a problem, and the hike back up the hill does not seem to stress her at all.

Nicola is setting new records for wild marmots, and has played an important part in the early recovery of her species. We hope that she continues to do so for a few more years yet.

In the photo below, you can see Nicola’s blind, white eye if you look closely.

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A Field Day at Haley Lake Ecological Reserve

A field day at Haley Lake Ecological Reserve in late August had a little something of everything: rain, sun, good news and sad, and lots of surprises.

Good news first, then the photos! One of our goals for the day to find a deceased marmot, Lucky Lucy.  Earlier this year, we detected Lucy with an odd signal, and we were pretty confident she had died though we were not able find her body. We could not be happier to be wrong! Lucky Lucy was detected alive a nearby mountain! We were only able to detect her from a distance, so we don’t know what caused the odd signal, and with winter approaching it may be sometime before we are able to learn anything more.

Earlier morning weather was a little wet, and when we first arrived, none of the marmots were not interested in venturing outside their burrows. However, even when the marmots are hiding, Haley Bowl is a beautiful spot.

Using telemetry, we were able to confirm that most of Haley’s resident marmots were still on site, even if they were staying dry underground. A few odd-balls, like Alan and Anik, required a some hiking to track down.

Sadly, telemetry also indicated Myrtle had died. We located her remains in a copse of woods, buried under a thin layer of branches and twigs. The evidence suggests that she was predated on by a cougar. Michael Boudreau collected her remains for further examination by veterinarians.

On our way out we made one last stop at the main meadow, and the marmots were waiting for us! Three marmots, including Alan, Muffin, and Towhee (pictured here) were sunning themselves now that the skies had cleared. Alan, always the traveler, had either made the trip between Bell Creek and Haley Bowl during the day, or had managed to fool us with his location. He does seem to be spending a lot of time near Towhee – perhaps he will finally settle down?

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