While it is still early in the year for 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!
Vancouver Island marmots are emerging from their winter hibernation. As often happens, some marmots emerge earlier than others, and many wake up briefly only to return to torpor for some time. Weather conditions in Vancouver Island’s alpine are within normal ranges for this time of year – that includes a fair amount of snow covering the ground.
Marmots are herbivores, with a wide ranging diet of leaves, grasses, shrubs, and even tree bark, and they are able to find food even with snow covering the ground. However, at several colonies, our field crews have set up feeders to provide the marmots with supplementary food. This extra, high quality food may help breeding age females improve their body condition quickly – and perhaps reproduce more often than normally would.
Waking up from hibernation is an important and challenging time for the Vancouver Island marmot. Their long winter sleep takes a toll on their bodies, and to recover from hibernation takes even more energy. The BBC produced an excellent segment on this challenge for their show ‘Animals: The Inside Story’
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!
Happy Star Wars Day! May the 4th be with you. Last year, the Calgary Zoo named the young marmots to be released after Stars Wars characters, and boy have some of them been on adventures worthy of their names!
In the oops department: Han Solo… well, lets just say mistakes were made, and Han Solo has been redubbed Hanna Solo! She’s still in hibernation on Mt Washington, but marmots are just starting to get more active.
“Luke, I am your… brother?” Of course, these marmots are all the same generation, so Anakin is actually Luke’s brother, not father! Speaking of Luke….
As Yoda said “Luke, you must not go”, but did Luke listen? No, of course not, and neither did our Luke. After being released in Strathcona Park, we lost track of him. Fortunately, Luke was spotted in November, but to our surprise, he was well outside the Park, far from home or safety. We were able to rescue him, but given how late in the season it was, he could not be released back to the wild. Instead, he spent the winter hibernating in the marmot facility on Mt Washington, and will be released to the wild again this summer.
Next time, can we name the marmots something less adventurous?
Han, oops, Hanna Solo on release day in 2016 at Mt Washington
We would to extend a special thank you to young people who are helping recover the Vancouver Island Marmot. Your stories and efforts are inspiring! Today we’d like share such two stories that we received.
The first comes from Cohen, age 8, who was doing a project on Hedgehogs at his Comox Valley school that included a fundraising component. Cohen wanted his fundraising efforts to have a local impact, so he decided to raise funds for the Vancouver Island Marmots. What a great example of thinking global and acting local! Thank you Cohen.
Sometimes though, it works the other way around! Despite being on vacation England, our Field Coordinator Cheyney couldn’t help but talk about marmots. After returning home, Cheyney was delighted to get the letter below from Holly-Kathleen, who was clearly moved by Cheyney’s work to recover the marmots! Thank you to both Cohen and Holly-Kathleen, and to everyone, young and old, who supports our work. It is because of your gifts that we are able to make the recovery of this unique species possible!
Canada Post Strike Update: We will get your donations! We want to assure you that your mail will reach us, despite the current limited job action at Canada Post. As you may have heard, Canada Post has begun rotating strikes, including here on Vancouver Island. The job action may impact how long it takes your mail to reach us, and vice versa, but mail will still be delivered.
More research! The Marmot Recovery Foundation is collaborating with Dr Jamie Gorrell of Vancouver Island University to map the genetics and 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.
Humans know not to marry their cousins. But the endangered Vancouver Island marmot doesn't have much choice. One Vancouver Island researcher is now looking into the potential problem of marmot inbreed...
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.
To improve the survival of captive-born marmots, we decided to try releasing some to the relatively safe colony at Mount Washington for one year. The Mount Washington colony has lots of marmots, is lower elevation with more green for a longer time, and perhaps most importantly, has people nearby that scare away predators. The following year, we re-capture these “stepping-stone” marmots and release them in far more remote colonies in Strathcona Provincial Park.
It seemed to be working, but analyzing the data to build a solid model of the difference this “stepping-stone” approach made was very difficult. Thankfully, the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research and U.S. Geological Service agreed to analyze our data. And indeed, this release methodology makes a substantial difference, and captive-bred marmots released using the stepping-stone approach have much better survival rates in Strathcona Park. When the first results came in two years ago we transitioned entirely to this approach for all marmots released to Strathcona, but it has taken longer to get to publication.
Now, you can read all about it in the journal Animal Conservation! Authors include the Foundation’s own Field Coordinator, Cheyney Jackson, with Natasha Lloyd and Axel Moehrenschlager of the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research, U.S. Geological Service’s Nathan Hostetter, and University of Washington’s Sarah Converse. “Optimizing release strategies: a stepping‐stone approach to reintroduction”: zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acv.12448... See MoreSee Less
Animal Conservation Volume 0, Issue 0 Original Article Open Access Optimizing release strategies: a stepping‐stone approach to reintroduction N. A. Lloyd Corresponding Author E-mail address:natashal...