Sunday, November 28, 2010

Go! Get! Yip! Ahhh! Predator!

It's a bit hard to make out in the picture above, but it's there, a running marmot. The marmot is indeed being chased by a researcher, this is literally science in action. So why are we chasing marmots? Well, we are measuring how fast they run. Research in our lab focuses on antipredator behavior, and running speed is therefore a trait of interest. Antipredator behavior simply refers to marmots' strategies for escaping or avoiding other animals that want to eat them. So, an animal's ability to quickly accelerate and outrun a predator is extremely important.

To measure running speed, we chase marmots and time them over a fixed distance. We also note things like incline, substrate (grass, rock, sand, etc.), and vegetation height, as these variables may influence the marmot's speed. As we chase them, we yell, shout, and sometimes flail our limbs to scare them. Each researcher has their own particular call (see title for some examples), but I am a particular fan of "run marmot run". Though it seems silly, it is necessary to mimic an intense predation situation so that marmots run as fast as they can.

Remember your P.E. class? Every week you were required to run a lap around the track while your teacher timed you. Now imagine a giant was chasing you while screaming and waving his arms. I bet you'd run a little faster, right? We're interested in MAXIMUM running speed, not jogging speed or leisurely stroll speed. So the chasing and hollering is indeed necessary for accurate data collection. Plus, it's hilarious to watch your colleague, professor, or field assistant try to outrun a marmot.

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