Friday, April 13, 2012

The Hoary Marmot Obsession

From contributor Meika Jensen <>:

Who doesn’t love the hoary marmot?

To be fair, plenty of people outside of a couple traditional and accredited online masters programs or an overzealous Zoobooks fan might never have heard of them. While they are native to North America, unlike most other members of the Marmota genus, they keep to the mountains and alpine meadows of the Pacific Northwest, mostly hidden away above the tree line in Alaska, British Columbia or Washington.

But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a sort of mascot for the national parks and mountain resorts where hikers stand a chance of spotting one, or hearing that telltale whistle they make to warn their colony about intruders. They’ve inspired merchandise from T-shirts to water bottles, shot glasses and iPad cases. According to their information guide, the British Columbia town of Whistler even chose its name because of the sound the marmots make.

Once you’ve met one of the little guys, it’s not hard to figure out the appeal. The lucky marmots get all the love because thanks to a simple equation: They’re cute, they’re memorable and they live in scenic places.

Hoary marmots, or Marmota caligata (that’s Latin for “boots”), share the inherent appeal of their cousin the groundhog, who has the appearance of a chubbier, more dignified squirrel. They’ll even get up on their hind legs to make a striking pose while they’re getting a look at you. But hoary marmots are the biggest ground squirrels in North America, with distinctive black boot-like feet (hence the name) and a look that falls somewhere between that of a prairie dog and a seal.

But what might really set the whistlers apart from their Marmota brethren — apart from all that whistling — is location. While groundhogs live in flat land spread across half of North America, the hoary marmot is rare enough to be something special. And the Washington Trails Association points out that they tend to inhabit some pretty scenic spots, like Mount Rainier and the network of trails that run through the Rocky Mountains and Cascades. Plus, they’ll eat some of the prettiest flowers.

The hoary marmot is a common sight for those who venture up into their habitats, enough that resorts can organize special marmot-sighting tours. The species has “Least Concern” status from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but at the same time, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web points out that two subspecies, the Montague Island and Glacier Bay marmots, both of which are native to small parts of Alaska, are subjects of concern thanks to their very specific habitats and tiny population sizes.

And just like any species that makes its home in the alpine wilderness, the hoary marmot’s future depends on keeping that wilderness unspoiled. That’s another thing that makes them a good mascot for the Northwest and all its natural beauty, especially the resorts, whose livelihoods depend on the wilderness too. In their own, much less majestic way, hoary marmots do for wildlife what the giant redwoods do for trees: Take something that’s familiar to Americans, then super-size it and place it in the most amazing scenery you can find.

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