Friday, July 29, 2011

The Joys of Research: The Box.

The Box.

We put marmots in a box called an 'arena' to see how they explore novel spaces and react to a mirror. Yearlings also get a shot of oxytocin up the nostril. We review and score their behavior with aid of a videocamera and a tripod.

Dynamite receiving his saline control (for the oxytocin tests).

There are a few boxes, but not enough for every site. Thus, we must haul them about in a cart. This is Matt.

The Lone Marmoteer.


F in the box.

Between trials, we have to clean the box with vinegar and water to ensure marmots don't get scent cues from each other. Problem is, I'm 5'2"ish...and the box is 3' deep. This means I can't reach the floor, where the marmots sweat, pee, and poo, by just leaning in. Instead, I have to go in and out like a test subject, through the small, small door the marmots use.
My P.I. (Dr. Blumstein) described this as 'precious'.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Recovery to be slow...

Well it's almost August and we've had only five females produce below-average sized litters at our down valley locations and, as of today, only one litter (there might be a few more) has emerged at out up-valley locations.  If we have more than 30 pups, this will be a good year (by contrast, we had about 130 pups last year and as many as 187 pups in the past decade!).  This relatively low productivity will delay the rebound of the population and illustrates a few really interesting things.

1)  The importance of body condition and long growing seasons for marmots.  Females in poor body condition can't allocate sufficient resources to breed or to produce large litters and we see this effect most pronounced in 'bad' years.  In 'good' years, everyone can breed and we don't see the trade-off between litter size and condition expressed.

2)  Allee effects!  At small populations, strange things happen. For instance we have groups this year with no breeding age females (the female died over the winter) and we have groups without breeding age males.  We watched females cycle in preparation for reproduction but they apparently never encountered a male during their fertile window.  Such effects are expected in small, fragmented populations and are a huge reason why it's important to keep populations large and connected.  Never thought I'd see it commonly happening in our marmot population, but you learn something new every year.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vancouver Island marmots having trouble too...

Turns out that our harsh winter isn't just 'our' harsh winter.  Vancouver Island marmots, a critically endangered species that's being actively managed to recover the species from the brink of extinction.  A recent newspaper article describes the problems that the recovery team has faced this summer:  too much snow, bad weather, and an inability to re-introduce captive-born marmots.

Fingers crossed.  The recovery, to date, has been successful, but setbacks could be profound this summer.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meet Team Marmot: Jen Sojka

Greetings marmot fans! I am an undergraduate from Lake Forest College near Chicago, IL, working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory this summer with Team Marmot. This is me and my science face.

Under the guidance of my mentor, Matt Petelle, I will be studying what affects the repeatability of personality in marmots. Personality by definition is repeatable across time and context. However, we know that many factors can affect how an animal responds to a given personality test, which therefore affect the repeatability. My work will examine the effects of microhabitat and habituation on tests of boldness and exploration in the yellow-bellied marmots near RMBL.

Since I arrived in the beginning of June I have learned how to take down social observations and help with weekly trappings including painting dye marks on marmots backs. Recently, I have begun my experiments to measure personality traits. The test for boldness involves me walking very slowly at marmots and recording the distances when the marmot notices me and when he escapes to his burrow. This is known as a flight initiation distance test.

To measure exploration, I use a novel object test. This test involves placing an object that marmots have never seen before (in this case, a floaty zebra toy named Ezekial) outside of a burrow with a bit of bait in front of it. I then record the activity of the marmots while they forage at the bait. The proportion of time spent looking for predators versus time spent foraging gives a measurement of how adventurous each marmot is.

The marmot, 3, in a drainpipe in Gothic.

I am having an excellent time so far, and I am looking forward to working against the weather to get lots of data in the name of science!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Meet Team Marmot: Malle Carrasco

Hi! My name is Malle (pronounced Maya). I am a biology student at Baylor University in Waco, Tx, and am enjoying the opportunity to not only do research with great people at RMBL, but also avoid the hot, humid weather! Back home I enjoy being a member and officer of a national sisterhood, biking down the river to Cameron Park, travelling, and being a supplemental instructor for physics (a lot more fun than it sounds).

I am usually found in the beautiful Baylor Sciences Building working in Dr. Stephen Trumble’s Lab of Ecological and Adaptational Physiology (LEAP) as an undergrad assistant. I have been helping his graduate student, Rebel Sanders, with her Master’s thesis - assaying baby salmon for effects of certain hatchery chemicals. It’s pretty neat research. I’ll get to continue that work this semester as well as help an ecology Master’s student with his field studies – bring on the herptiles! Now, I’m thrilled to have my own research project!

I am asking the question of whether the mule deer found in this area respond to marmot alarm calls. A fascinating part of animal behavior research is fear responses and how those are developed. Here in the valley, coyotes and foxes prey upon yellow-bellied marmots. Coyotes, especially, can be a nuisance for the young deer and fawn, too.

Adult female, Photo by Jenn Smith

It would be interesting to see if the mule deer have a separate response to marmot alarm calls versus the control, the crowned sparrow song. Furthermore, if there is a response in the deer community, I am also curious to know if there could possibly be a greater one from females that have fawn nearby.

A new fawn, Photo by Jenn Smith

Deer are cute creatures, but they have a very early wake up time. I can usually be found heading out to the “deer highways,” commonly used deer trails, at about five in the morning. I spend a majority of the time on the “hunt” looking for these camouflaged characters. Once I find one, I do all I can to get a behavioral observation before the deer bolts! Let’s just say some days are more successful than others.

On the bright side, being up so early means I get a head start on the day, hear many of the morning birds, and greet the sun as it crests over the mountains.

When I can make it back in time, I am fortunate enough to get to help the marmot team trap adults, and even my first pups the other day! The Marmoteers are great, extremely smart and hard-working people. I am looking forward to learning more with them in addition to my own “deering.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where are they?

Over the past decade or so, we usually have our first litters of pups emerge from below ground the last week of June. By July 4th, we're up to our ears in pups.

Photo by Amanda Lea of a pup, June 2010

This year, in which the marmots had a VERY late start, continues to be an exceptional (and not in a good way!) year. Our first litter emerged after 4 July and we're still looking for another one! In the past decade we've had as many as 187 pups to catch at emergence. But this year, with some luck, we hope to have as many as 14 litters but that depends on a lot--the mothers not reabsorbing their embryos because they were in poor body condition after the long winter, and predators like weasels not killing the pups before they emerge.

Another real issue is that we have been seeing a lot of adult females not breeding. Why? Well, as they say, a shortage of good men. Some groups had all the male marmots die and there was nobody to mate with at the end of a long winter. Interestingly, the first litter to emerge was one where the male hibernated with two adult females...they didn't have to emerge through 3 meters of snow to mate (they lived in an avalanche corridor and Julien was watching them earlier in the year as an avalanche approached them...they ducked out of the way!).

I'm sure we'll have more pups soon, but the wait is killing me. I'm concerned that the whole valley will pop at the same time (typically the lower elevation sites emerge about a week or so before the upper elevation sites emerge)...which will create some challenges to trap them all at emergence.

Ahh, life in the mountains...unpredictable yet still exciting.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Welcome to motherhood: Pups are here!

The pups have emerged! Dan discovered our first litter yesterday and our good neighbor, Elizabeth Overholser, joined us at this exciting scene to photograph us in action. In the photo below, I am holding "my" first pup, looking like a bit of a nervous Nelly with a newborn in my hand!

Jenn handling her first pup, very carefully!

More photos will surely be posted soon as we continue to weigh and mark these newly recruited members of our marmot population here at RMBL. We have already seen at least six pups and we expect to see more in days to come. Let the fun begin!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Meet Team Marmot: Casey Lee


NikNik the Pom
I’m a senior biology and environmental studies major at Oberlin College. In addition to biology related stuff, I enjoy veganism, gender studies, running, my hammock, kale, popsicles, garlic, playing fiddle music, and my Pomeranian Nudnik ("NikNik").

 This summer at RMBL I’m investigated behavioral syndromes in yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), looking to see if there’s a correlation between boldness and novelty-seeking.

            Animal personality typically refers to a behavioral manifestations stable across time and contexts, and has been shown to shape fitness and population dynamics though such traits as dominance, response to stress, and reproductive performance. Within the personality framework, behavioral syndromes refer to population-wide  personality traits that are consistent over a variety of contexts (e.g., an individual might be aggressive in mating, feeding, parental care), or correlations between different traits (e.g aggression and boldness). Behavioral syndromes can shape the covariance and coevolution of traits in a population. Of particular interest are the fitness trade-offs and potentially non-adaptive behavior that may emerge when traits are correlated across contexts. A good example is that of an individual displaying an aggressive syndrome; while the s/he may accrue wild reproductive success being sexually aggressive, it may experience a tradeoff being overly aggressive – and potentially harmful – to its offspring.

             Yellow-bellied marmots
offer an ideal opportunity to study behavioral syndromes; the famous Ken Armitage demonstrated that they vary along a shy-bold continuum and that these behavioral phenotypes correlate with dispersal, play behaviors, and recruitment success. It remains uninvestigated, however, whether there exists in yellow-bellied marmots a correlation between boldness and novelty-seeking. Alas! This is what I am studying!

            We define boldness as an individual’s reaction to a risky – but not novel – situation. I’m quantifying boldness using tests of flight-initiation distance, the distance from an advancing threat at which an individual flees. Essentially, I walk at a very, very slow thoroughly trained pace toward a specified marmot and record the distances at which it alerts to my presence and flees to its burrow.

This is 'G', one of the marmots who lives in the Gothic townsite. Doesn't she look ready to order a beverage from the porch of the library? (Photo credit: Jon Gonzalez)
            Novelty-seeking - or “exploration” – is quantified by recording an individual’s reaction to something they haven’t seen before. A realistic plastic goose was used as the novel object 2010 and a similarly-sized, zebra-like floatation device is being employed this year. I place the zebra floaty, “Ezekiel”, about a meter from a burrow with a heap of tasty horse grain, sit back, and watch. When marmots approach within 10 meters of the object, I record who they are and what they do. Since I can only focus adequately on one marmot at a time during this test, if others begin to forage at Ezekiel, I have to get up and chase them away; this can be
quite comic.

Novel-object Ezekiel atop the pack of a fellow Marmoteer.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Marmot days of summer

July is here and it is officially summer at RMBL.

Most of the snow has melted from the mountains and this water is helping to turn the landscape green.

The vegetation is now growing, waterfalls are rushing, and flowers are blooming.

Marmots enjoy the benefits of this extra cover because it provides them with new opportunities to forage.

They also use tall vegetation, such that shown below, to seek protection when faced with predation risk.

Of course, because this extra food brings multiple marmots out of their burrows to forage at once, marmots are also spending much of their active time socializing with their group-mates.

We paint a unique dye mark on the back of each marmot to keep track of which animal is which. For example, you can see "Y" is the adult female on the rock in the middle of the photo below.

Team marmot is now busy recording social behavior and trapping marmots from our study population. However, not all of the marmots are easily convinced that they should go
inside of our traps!

Luckily, for Team Marmot, our days in the mountains are long, so we can take full advantage of this active time to collect data and spend many hours surrounded by beautiful scenery. Yes, the life of a marmoteer is certainly rough these days.