Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A marmot about Town

As much as I joke about “becoming one with the marmots” when I’ve been working with in the field for months on end, I don’t actually identify most of the individuals by looks alone. An exception to that general rule was “3”, so called because of the mark we put on her back. This particular marmot lives in Gothic itself (the specific location of the RMBL and the site we call Town).

Posing alertly by one of the cow skulls commonly decorating the cabins at RMBL (All photos: Tina W. Wey).

Choosing a comfortable spot to nurse her pups.

Perhaps it’s her rich dark gray/brown fur and prominent white nose bar. Perhaps it’s her curious gaze and prominent buck teeth that are always poking out. Or perhaps it’s her “special” behavior and affinity for the cabins (she once decided to wander right in through an open door and check one out for herself, much to the shock of the researcher inside). For whatever reason, I find her a real charmer. Fat, fluffy, and curious – yes, she's quite the marmot about Town!

Looking fat and fluffy even in the spring. Actually, that's mostly fur, as the marmots are usually very thin when they first emerge and spend the summer packing on the pounds for the coming winter.

Late summer, looking about ready to roll off the cabin steps! Now she probably is as round as she looks.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Raquel Monclús

My name is Raquel Monclús (the one under the hat) and I am a post-doctoral fellow. I did my doctoral thesis in Spain studying European rabbits. I looked at how the rabbits respond to their predators. I got my doctor title in 2007 and then I got a Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship to come to study marmots, and in particular to study the indirect effects of predators.

Marmots, and most animals, have strategies to avoid (or at least try) being eaten. For instance, they regularly scan the environment to detect the presence of risky situations, and as they are alert they can act fast whenever their risk increases. However, being alert makes that some animals might have to reduce the time that they are feeding, so they cannot gain as much weight as those with fewer predators. And for marmots weight is essential if they have to spend 7 months under a huge cover of snow.

But why did I come all of the way from Spain to study marmots in Colorado? Because they are a great study system. Marmots live in groups; therefore, many individuals live in the same spot. They are diurnal, so one can easily observe many of them at the same time and they have different predators so not all of them face the same threats.

There are marmots in many places, including Spain, but these marmots, the ones we are studying, are special: they have been studied for nearly 50 years. So we have a deep knowledge of many aspects of their biology and ecology and it is just now when we can start answering interesting ecological questions about patterns, trends and dynamics. However, we will need another 50 years or so to know everything about marmots… We will try.

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.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Julien Martin

I am a new postdoctoral fellow in the lab. I am interested in the impact of climate changes on the evolution of traits of yellow-bellied marmots.

I have done my M.S. on personality in wild chipmunks under the supervision of Pr. Denis Réale. My main interest was to establish if individuals differed in their behavior in a stressful situation and how these differences were related to hormones and human disturbance.

For my PhD, I worked on reproductive strategies of bighorn sheep females with Pr. Marco Festa-Bianchet. I was interested in how adult females allocate energy to reproduction or to survival under different conditions. In few words, bighorn females always favor their own body condition and survival over the ones of their lambs.

Photo taken by Alice Branbilla.

Because I have not yet done any field work at RMBL, I do not have any photos with me and a cute marmot. However, here is a picture of with a male bighorn lamb of 4 months back when I still had a beard (--luckily lambs grow much faster than does facial hair).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It's raining flies

Mid- to late July is my least favorite time of year at RMBL. It’s hot and dusty, there are tons of tourists, we’re super busy with pup trapping…and there are the biting flies. Numerous, relentless, buzzing, biting, blood-sucking…can you tell I’m not a fan? The flies are at best annoying and at worst give lots of painful bites that result in excruciatingly itchy bumps and to which I have rather extreme allergic reactions. Parasites can have a big effect on host behaviors, and needless to say, I go to great lengths to try and avoid their bites. And while some strategies are more successful than others, all result in rather amusing (in retrospect) behaviors.

Fly time is unhappy time for animals and people. (Photo: George Aldridge)

Some of my emergent behaviors are simply a reaction to the flies in the moment. For example, sometimes I’ll endure the flies for a while, and then suddenly freak out and do a crazy dance, which involves a lot of hopping around and wildly waving arms and erratic slapping motions. Also, I am normally a rather slow jogger, but during fly season, my pace quickens drastically in a desperate attempt to outrun the flies (they consistently catch up to me if I let myself fall into to my usual, comfortable slow pace). If I had to deal with flies all the time, I’d have to either quit jogging or get a whole lot faster.

Other behavioral changes involve modifying my habits. During the hottest time of year, I tend to cover up as much of myself as possible. I wear long sleeves, long pants, hats and hoods, and often even gloves. Sometimes even this is not successful, as I’ve gotten bitten on the tips of fingers any number of times because I had a hole in my gloves. So now you’ll understand why, if you’re ever traveling through RMBL on a hot dry sunny July day, you might just happen to spot some marmot researchers looking like this:

(I don't remember who took these photos. If anyone out there does, please let me know!)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Back in the lab with Kelley Lu

My name is Kelley Lu and I am an undergraduate student. When I’m in the lab, I count the number of neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, basophils, and trypanosomes in the blood slides that the marmot team retrieved from marmots on site. I count the number of each type of cell until I reach a 100 sum between the neutrophils and lymphocytes. One of the difficulties I encounter when I’m working is the “unknown cell”. Occasionally, I will bump into a cell that I can’t identify—it looks like a neutrophil, but it also looks like an eosinophil… or sometimes a lymphocyte-looking cell that looks like a monocyte. Other times, the slide will have too many cells, and such a thick layer that I can’t discern between the different types of cells, or the slide will have too few cells, and there won’t be enough cells to count. My favorite part of working in the lab is clicking the counter, because I love the sound it makes when it clicks. It’s also a small triumph every time I click the counter, because each “click” simply means I’m one cell count closer to reaching the 100 sum for the neutrophils and lymphocytes.

~Kelley Lu

Animal Diversity Web: Marmots

The University of Michigan Museum has lots of interesting information on animals of all shapes and sizes. Check out the fun facts and interesting photos of yellow-bellied marmots at Animal Diversity Web.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marmots for all ages

I study marmots with my dad.

Marmots are brown furry mammals.

They live a burrow.

I study marmots in Colorado.

When I study marmots I try to see how loud they get.

The loudest marmot I have heard is 120 db from 2m.

I want to see how loud they get because than I can find out if a predator is around their burrow or them.

Where I study marmots the most successful predator is the fox.

When marmots get scared they make a loud screaming sound called alarm calling.

If you studied marmots you would take notes I take notes and always record data.

We use large metal live traps.

When the marmots get trapped normally they get scared.

We use traps because we can’t catch them otherwise they are too fast.

This is me holding a marmot.

--David Blumstein

Whistling pigs of Colorado

Among locals, yellow-bellied marmots have earned the nickname of "whistling pigs". Marmots are not actually pigs. Instead, they are cat-sized rodents that belong to the family Rodentia.

Marmots spend a lot of time eating during the summer months.
They must put on weight all summer long so that they can store-up enough fat to survive the winter during hibernation. Their diet is comprised mainly of forbs, grasses, sedges, clovers, and alfalfa.

However, when marmots encounter dangers, they take time out from foraging to
make loud chirping sounds, called alarm-calls that sound like whistles.

This unique combination of eating a LOT and "whistling" while they work has earned this critter the nickname, "whistling pig."

High altitude brownies

High altitude brownies” might not be what you’re thinking. Or maybe they are, if you’ve done some baking at high elevations. You’ll notice that the instructions on the back of most brownie and cake mix packages have a set of special instructions for baking at higher elevations, i.e., above 4,000 ft. Well, RMBL is close to 10,000 ft, and the decidedly lower air pressure means that following conventional baking rules often leads to unexpected and (more often than not) unpleasant results. For example, if you use an unmodified brownie recipe, you’re apt to end up with rock hard edges and a gooey, undercooked center. I’m actually not sure why there is this particular response in brownies (anyone out there care to explain?), but in general, the low air pressure changes the way baked goodies rise, so anything that depends on the dough or batter rising will go awry unless you account for the air pressure.

Exhibit A: Successful high elevation brownies. (Photo: Irene

In spite of these challenges (or maybe partly because of them?), I have rarely been so prolific or creative of a baker as I always was at RMBL. Over the years, our cabin (inevitably good ol’ Forest Queen) has churned out goodies that included: brownies galore, piles of cookies, numerous variations of rhubarb pies, cobblers, and crumbles (thanks to a lovely rhubarb bush just across Happy Valley from us; yes, there is actually a spot called Happy Valley), pineapple upside down cake, lemon bars, focaccia bread, pizza from homemade dough (one time baked with the oven propped as close to shut as possible with a chair because we rolled out the dough on a baking sheet that was too big), and, in one of my more ambitious and glorious moments, even fresh cinnamon rolls from scratch (that was a good day).

Just thinking about it makes me smile (and drool). Yes, combine fieldwork with several girls living together in a cabin in the mountains, maybe with some snow outside and/or a warm fire crackling in the stove, and you have the perfect set up for adventures in baking. Hey, researchers also need the extra calories for the cold, right? Right??

The kitchen of Forest Queen, a.k.a. baking central (Photos: Tina W. Wey):

Wouldn’t you bake a lot too, if you lived here?

Meet Team Marmot: Nicole Munoz

I’m interested in how animals use their senses to detect predators in order to avoid being eaten. Predators make sounds, have a shape and even mark areas where prey live with urine in order to tell others “Hey! This is my meal!” Of course prey don’t want to be eaten, but they are often doing other activities like getting food or socializing, which are also important for their survival. So how do animals know when the likelihood of being eaten is so high that they should stop doing what they’re doing in order to stay alive? The smells, sounds and sights of predators give prey information that they use to make this decision.

You might think that only psychologists study how the mind interprets multiple senses. But, as a behavioral ecologist, I also think understanding the mind of animals is interesting! You have probably noticed that when you’re in a noisy room, it’s easier to understand what someone is saying if you can also see their lips moving. This is because you’re unconsciously using information from your vision (moving lips) in combination with audio information to form comprehensive meaning.

(Making observations in the field)

By doing experiments out in nature I’m discovering that marmots can also combine information about the smells and sounds of predators to make decisions about their behavior! Understanding how the minds of animals process multiple sensory cues is also important for conservation. Human actions often introduce noise into the environment (e.g. air pollutants or traffic noise) that might block predator cues, so we need to know how losing information from one sense negatively affects animals’ ability to escape predators.


Yes. That's right. Bear! A big one! A bear recently broke into the dining hall. It was looking for food and obviously did not check the schedule. If it had bothered to look up the meal plan online, it would have noticed that the dining hall doesn't open for quite sometime and there isn't much to eat right now besides pots and pans. But in all seriousness, RMBL has had a rather large bear problem over the past years. During the summer of 2009, bears repeatedly broke into the dining hall as well as several cabins. In fact, a marmot field assistant was interrupted from a peaceful sleep by this particularly frightening brand of intruder. Thankfully, there have been no injuries and the bears typically retreat once they are spotted and chased. However, this conflict between researchers and wildlife is of great concern.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife "
Bears that become aggressive in their pursuit of an easy meal must often be destroyed." At RMBL, we therefore take every precaution to keep bears wild and deter them from thinking that are cabins and dining hall are part of the buffet line. It's their wilderness and we are simply visitors, so it is our responsibility to prevent encounters wherever possible. The dining hall staff has posted signs on the kitchen door stating "No bears allowed". And in case the bears are illiterate, the rest of us will properly dispose of our trash and appropriately manage our food storage.

Click here for more information on bears in Colorado and living with bears.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Adriana Maldonado

I am a first year Fullbright Doctoral Fellow from Colombia, where I worked with Capybaras, the biggest rodent of the world! They are cool animals, and the best part is that they are rodents, as marmots!

I am studying how individuals of a population can help to cope with environmental fluctuations. So, I will mark marmots and look how they modify some of their behaviors such as the time they wake up from hibernation during the spring, the number of pups they have, the weight they gain, and when do they go to sleep again for the winter. Also, I will record environmental information such as temperature and snow. Then, I will explore if the marmots change their behavior when the weather conditions change.

This is me in the field giving eartags to a new pup.

The next step in step in my research is to represent the marmot life cycle and test if the individual differences among marmots have consequences in the rhythm at which the population grows. To do this, I will use population modeling methods, math and statistics.

Marmot Soap Opera!

I first came to RMBL in 2007 to work with the marmot social network project. My job was to describe all the interactions of the marmots including those in which they fight or court each other for a "date". While observing marmots, the first thought that comes to your mind is: what a nice soap opera! Couples courting, relatives fighting, kids playing, and juveniles going away from home.

One of the most amazing things was that triple blot, one of the oldest males in a group, was displaced by a younger and stronger male. These guys had several fights in which they exerted a lot of energy.

This year I am coming back to RMBL to follow the marmot soap opera while doing the fieldwork of my Doctoral thesis!

Visiting Fullbright Fellow: From Pikas in India to Team Marmot

Royle's pika
Royle's pika
American pika

My name is Sabuj Bhattacharyya, and I am a PhD student at Wildlife Institute of India and presently a Fulbright fellow at University of Colorado, Boulder, working on effects of climatic fluctuation on foraging efficiency of American pika.
My ongoing PhD work deals with various aspects of timberline ecology specially to study the habitat use and density patterns of a small lagomorph, Royle’s pika, distributed along sub-alpine – alpine ecotone.

Apart from my PhD research, I have also worked on habitat utilisation pattern of animals and birds along tree line in Western Himalaya, India. My broad research interests include high altitude small mammal ecology and behaviour with emphasis on foraging, distribution, habitat use and population dynamics.

Conservation and climate change issues are complex and require interdisciplinary approach to study. The students of ecology in the developing countries usually lack exposure to various study techniques and dimensions of conservation research.

Presently I am visiting Professor Dan Blumstein’s lab as a volunteer and learning to extract hormones from marmot fecal samples. I will apply this knowledge to extracting samples in my future studies in the Himalayas. Volunteering in the Blumstein Lab at UCLA is an intensely rewarding endeavor. I would like to return to India with a network of strong and lasting scientific relationships with Blumstein and his lab.

--Sabuj Bhattacharyya

The porcupine who pooped in our stoop

If I studied porcupines, I might investigate whether or not they have a sense of vengeance.

It began, innocently enough, with trying to save time in the morning. We get up quite early in the morning when we are trapping the marmots because we want to get out to a colony, set and bait traps, and get off the site well before the marmots are up (usually around sunrise). We use a type of horse feed as bait and carry it around with us in plastic containers. Normally, if we are leaving from the lab in the morning anyway, we just grab bait when we stop by. If it is easier to leave from our cabin, we will sometimes bring the trapping materials (including bait) to our cabin the night before to speed things up in the morning.

Well, this one time, we had a mouse problem in our cabin (see “High altitude brownies”, and you may begin to guess why), and we thought it would be better to leave the bait outside, so as not tempt more mice inside. At the time, we were in Avery cabin, which has a little mudroom, basically a small sheltered porch between the cabin door and wood pile, where you can leave your muddy boots and gear. Great, we thought, we can leave the bait out there. At this time, we also had a porcupine that liked to hang out in the wood pile. Here he/she is:

In retrospect, we really should have seen what was coming. Porcupines do, after all, have very large teeth for gnawing. So unsurprisingly, the next morning we found: a large hole chewed in the bait container, partially eaten bait, and a few porcupine quills scattered in the mudroom. Oops, ok, so we learned our lesson and realized it was better to keep the bait inside after all, and that’s what we did that night. The morning after that, we got up, got ready, and opened the door to the mudroom. The first thing that hit us was the stench. WHAT was that?? Looking down we spied: a few scattered porcupine quills, a puddle or foul-smelling liquid, and some poop. Not to attribute a human sense of revenge to the porcupine or anything, but it did seem like suspicious timing.

Not the culprit, but another porcupine ambling peacefully by a marmot colony. (In fact, in this case, I was the one harassing it with my picture-taking. All photos: Tina W. Wey)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Matthew Petelle

I am studying animal personality, or differences in individual behavior. Animal personality may be thought of as the strategy an individual uses when interacting with other marmots, how it chooses what habitat to forage in, and how it should react to a predator. Specifically, I study how personality variation is caused and maintained within a population of yellow-bellied marmots. There are a number of hypotheses that may explain why variation exists within a population and how it is maintained.

First, I have to figure out what the personality of each marmot is. To do this, I put marmots in specific situations and see how they react or behave. This allows me to place individuals on a personality trait continuum.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Tina Wey

Yellow-bellied marmots and many other animals live and interact with each other, creating social networks. Intuitively, it is easy to understand that social connections and the emergent network structure can influence many aspects of animal social lives (including ours). However, it is often difficult to define and measure meaningful aspects of social living and their biological impacts. My dissertation work examines the biological causes (such as individual characteristics) and consequences (such as effects on reproduction, parasites, and stress) of individual variation in social network attributes.

I am currently a 6th year graduate student and worked with the marmots at RMBL from 2005-08. To see more details about my graduate research projects, see my website and my UCLA departmental page.

They say that after a while you start to resemble your study organism. I like to eat and sleep a lot, spend time in the mountains, and have been known to socialize. (Photo: Tina W. Wey, taken by Rachel Chock)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Personality 101

It is still early spring for us on the marmot crew- the snow has finally melted and we are gearing up our trapping efforts. It is also time to start collecting data for my PhD work. Like I stated in my research interests, I study animal personality. To do this, I have to figure out the personality of individual marmots by putting them in certain situations. One such situation is called an open-field test. An open-field test essentially consists of placing an individual in an arena and recording how they explore the space. I have just finished building my arena, a solid 3’x3’x3’ “box” made from pvc sheeting. I made the arena sturdy. Each of the sides is reinforced by 1” pvc bars. I naively thought it could withstand anything a marmot had to give. Dan, my advisor, and I are ready to begin. The arena is in place; it is time for my first trial. The video-recorder is set and ready to record every behavior. Dan and I take individual “line over circle”, a year-old male, from his trapping bag and place him in the arena. We quickly duck out of the way. We don’t want to affect the marmot’s behavior in any way. The trial has begun. I hear the pitter-patter of its feet as it walks around, exploring each corner. Suddenly a large thump comes from the ‘box’. The marmot jumped and made an unsuccessful attempt at escaping. I think, “my arena is tall enough- it can easily handle this tiny marmot’s leap”. I am still secure in my plan; everything is working perfectly. What a fleeting moment! I see Line Over Circle’s head peak over the siding. It has grabbed onto the top of the arena and lifted itself out.

I can only laugh at my false sense of superiority as the marmot is running towards its burrow. Line Over Circle makes a final blow to my initial experimental design. It trill calls as if to say, “you aren’t going to best me today”. It is time to go back to the drawing board. I have to come up with an answer to the marmot’s incredible jumping ability.

Meet Team Marmot: Back in the lab with Taylor Cook

Hi, my name is Taylor Cook. I’m a third year student studying Biology and Biomedical Research here at UCLA. I started working in the Blumstein lab this fall 2010. I’m working under the mentorship of Dr. Raquel Monclus on her project analyzing levels of stress hormones in marmots. We measure the hormones from fecal samples taken over the previous summer. Extracting the hormones from the feces is a really neat process. First we have to clean the grass and hair out of the sample, which can get a little messy. Next the samples are heated and centrifuged with alcohol. The hormones dissolve into the alcohol layer, and once the alcohol is evaporated off, we are left with a thin layer of hormones. The final product is then sent off to be analyzed. When we have all the samples done, it will give us valuable information on how marmots deal with stress. We will be able to see how handling affects their stress levels, among other factors. It has been fantastic getting to know Team Marmot and learning from all of their experiences. I’ve learned so much about marmots! I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in the lab, doing the extractions is really fun. It’s a great feeling getting hands on experience, and contributing to such an interesting and relevant project.

~Taylor Cook

UCLA undergraduates have personality

Hello, my name is Noelle Watanabe (above on the right). I am a 4th year undergraduate studying biology and Spanish at UCLA. I just started working in the Blumstein lab at the beginning of the Fall 2010 quarter with Matt Petelle as my mentor. I am currently working on a project which involves watching 6 minute videos of marmots and documenting their behaviors to help Matt in his study about marmot personality. Before beginning this project, I knew that marmots existed but I had never seen one and I didn’t know much about them. After just a few weeks of watching the videos that were recorded during the field season, I have seen and observed marmots of all sizes, ages, and personalities.

As I watch each video, I use a program called JWatcher to score actions like sniffing, walking, and rear looking, simply by pressing a key. I enjoy watching the videos because I love looking at the cute marmots and seeing how each individual behaves quite differently in the same situation.

For example, in the open field portion, some marmots are adventurous and actively explore the enclosure, sniffing all over, but others are more timid and sit peacefully in corners, cautiously observing in all directions. Each new marmot video I watch is full of surprises. I remember the first time I heard a marmot alarm call I almost screamed myself because the quick, high pitched cry took me by surprise. My favorite part of each video is the marmot’s reaction to seeing itself in the mirror. It might jump all over, scratch and paw at the mirror, or alarm call thinking it is a strange marmot.

I am excited to be contributing to this study knowing that a mechanism for maintaining personality in marmots could be determined using the data that I have recorded. I am so honored to be helping out in this lab. Working with the Team Marmot members has been amazing and I am having a lot of fun with my project.

--Noelle Watanabe