Wednesday, September 11, 2013

CUTE comic of marmots preparing for winter

If anyone can find the original source of this lovely comic, please send me an email!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't BBQ your marmots!!!

An outbreak of plague is reported in Central Asia.  The first fatality was someone who ate BBQ marmot. Plague has a long history of outbreaks in Central Asian and Russian marmot colonies and has killed millions over the years.  These days, early detection is essential for survival post infection.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Animal Behavior Society fun

Jenn Smith, a Blumstein alum, and I recently participated in the Animal Behavior Society outreach fair in Boulder, Colorado. Our exhibit featured how researchers are able to identify individuals in a group.
Before I get into our exhibit, let me go back a bit and explain why we presented this subject. The Blumstein lab and Jenn's new lab at Mills College study social behavior and its fitness consequences. A major issue when studying this phenomenon is how to know who interacts with whom. How do we tell individuals apart? In some taxa, you can use natural variation in fur color or marks like scars. A great example of this is the spotted hyena. Researchers use the variation in spot patterns to identify individuals, and can thus tell who initiated social interactions like who lost a fight and who is getting groomed by whom. Unfortunately, it is another story with squirrels. Their fur is often very similar in color and are also much smaller than hyenas. This makes them hard to spot and watch. How do we fix this problem? We give each squirrel a unique hair dye mark. Most of the time we keep it simple using letters and numbers, but every once in awhile we get creative and draw stick figures or intricate designs. 

Back to the outreach fair--as children approach the table, we give them pictures of hyenas and ask if they can tell them apart. All of the children realize they can use the spots to find differences among individuals. That's the easy part. When we ask them if they can tell squirrels apart from one another, most shake their head no in response. We show them how we trap the squirrels and give them marks. When we tell them that we need their help in coming up with new marks, they are more than happy to draw some great designs for us. Some wonderful examples include a snowman with long stick arms, a very intricate fish, and some wild flames. Most kids are also drawn to the video of marmot pups playing together. I ask them if they could describe the behaviors. Most came up with some great descriptions for wrestling, pushing, and biting. 
All-in-all, it was a rewarding experience for both Jenn and I, and we hope the public enjoyed it as well.  

We would also like to thank Joan Strassmann for taking most of the photos above. For more fun, please check out her wonderful blog, Sociobiology!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Undergraduate Research at RMBL

Summer research has come to an end here at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, so our undergraduate students presented their findings at the annual symposium.

Lilah Hubbard joined us for fieldwork from our lab at UCLA. Her research focused on the effects of group size on social structure in our female yellow-bellied marmots.

Dana Williams from Wellesley College also helped trap and observe marmots, specifically studying how spontaneous movement affects their alert distance and flight initiation distance when approached by a human.

Our lab members mentor students interested in the behavior of animals other than marmots as well...

Seth Kapp from Chaffey College examined how different types of nonlinear sound alter behavior in Lincoln's Sparrow through a playback experiment.

Jessica Whitaker from Southern Illinois University Carbondale was also interested in bird behavior. She tested the nonlinearity hypothesis, investigating whether noise evokes a different response than chaos.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kickstarter: help fund a marmot chess set!

Here's a brilliant artist who's looking for funds (today's the last day!) to support a marmot chess set project. Check out these characters!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Meet Tiffany

Hi everyone!

I'm Tiffany Armenta, a new-ish graduate student in the Blumstein lab.

I've been at RMBL since mid-April and absolutely love it here. I've done fieldwork in the past but have never been at a field site for such a long time, so this has allowed me to become completely immersed in my work. Plus, the hiking and biking opportunities around here are exceptional :)

In addition to the standard observations and samples we collect when trapping, I am stabilizing RNA from the marmots in order to look at genes expressed in their blood. I aim to compare the expression profiles of different phenotypes in order to see how environmental conditions can affect the genetics of individuals and, in turn, how these profiles may alter an animal's physiology.

For instance, I think it will be interesting to compare marmots that consistently exhibit signs of high vs. low stress (based on behavioral and physiological data). Studies of other (mostly model) organisms show over-expression of anti-inflammatory genes and under-expression of anti-viral genes in stressed individuals so it will be interesting to see if these patterns persist in a natural population.

I am also interested in the underlying mechanisms that occur when an individual prepares to disperse, so I focused on collecting RNA from our yearling marmots this summer. These guys will likely be exposed to new pathogens during this journey and will travel much further than they ever have in their entire life, so I expect dispersers to show a different pattern when it comes to metabolic and immunological genes.

In order to do this, I have to first build the marmot transcriptome, which is basically just the transcribed regions of the species' genome. This may not look like anything special, but it took me months of quality control and program queries to get this figure, which shows RNA sequence data that aligns to the 13-lined ground squirrel genome.

The lowest window here represents the squirrel genomic sequence: exons are blue blocks and introns are the lines with arrowheads. The large middle window displays marmot sequence (from one individual) that aligns to the squirrel genome, with each line representing a unique expression of that sequence.

Note that the majority of the marmot sequences (small gray squares) align with the squirrel exons. This was the highlight of my week because RNA should only be exonic sequences, so this means I've done something right! Success!

The next step is to identify the genes being expressed based on homology in other organisms (such as the squirrel and mouse) and then to quantify expression values. So expect to hear more from me once I make another breakthrough...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Be ready with a tasty offering...

There's a great article about a marmot who lives on top of Wheeler Peak in New Mexico who shakes down mountain climbers.  I've always referred to the summit tax one must pay on many high alpine peaks in marmot country...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dana Williams studies alert behavior in marmots.

My name is Dana Williams. I grew up in a little town in Western Massachusetts on the border of Vermont, where my grandmother would often take me out into the woods to teach me botany. My parents and I often traveled to western Canada visiting and hiking in areas similar to RMBL. I wanted to return and study in this amazing environment. This coming fall, I will be a senior at Wellesley College. I majoring in Biology with a minor in Environmental Studies. This summer, I got the opportunity to come study with Team Marmot at RMBL.

My research this summer is about the potential effects of spontaneous movement on estimates of alert distance. This is all related to economic escape behavior, or when an animal decides it's time to run away. Alert distance is the point during a predator's approach when the prey first acknowledges the predator as a threat. This is followed by a point  called the flight initiation distance (FID), where the prey leaves for cover. These measurements of these two help us understand how animals make cost-benefit analyses under predation risk. 

My project involves being a part of the regular observation team but in addition to recording our two minute "foraging focals", where we observe a foraging animal for two minutes and dictate its actions into a handheld recording device. I am also conducting non-foraging focals for animals at rest and focals before conducting FIDs. The FIDs are measured by walking towards a marmot and marking the alert distance and the flight initiation distance.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Marmot team also studies birds!

My name is Jessica Whitaker and I am a senior zoology major at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. I anticipate attending graduate school to study birds or animal behavior.  I’m super excited to spend my summer at RMBL testing whether birds have the ability to distinguish among types of nonlinear acoustic phenomena: noise and two types of deterministic chaos.  I will complete playback experiments in the field and quantify behavioral responses of birds to determine if the types of sound are perceived differently.  In addition, I plan to study the degradation of sound over space by broadcasting and recording sounds at increasing distancesand using spectrogram correlation to compare noise and two types of deterministic chaos.  My favorite part of the project is hiking around the beautiful mountain landscape and finding birds willing to listen to my stimuli.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thanks to NSF for help supporting our marmot project: and a disclaimer

I'm filling out my annual NSF report now and want to both thank the NSF for on-going support on the marmot projects and point out that this is our blog, and is in no way vetted by the NSF.
So, the official disclaimers are:

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (DEB-1119660)
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The last member of the early season team Marmot!

My name is Line Cordes and I was the last member of team Marmot to arrive in late April. I am from Denmark, but have lived elsewhere for the last 12 years pursuing a career in population ecology. I completed my MSc and PhD at University of Aberdeen, Scotland developing and running an individual-based study of harbour seals, studying their demography and pupping phenology. During the completion of my PhD I took on a postdoc where I, as part of a team, investigated the impacts of seismic surveys on cetaceans. Most recently, I have moved to Fort Collins, CO with my husband who was offered a postdoc at CSU, and I have been working as a visiting scientist either volunteering or taking on contracts both within and outside of CSU to analyse data within the field of population ecology. I arrived at RMBL just in time for the emergence of the first marmots. This meant that it was a speedy introduction to identifying individuals as well as observing and documenting their social behaviour. I was assigned one particular colony called Avalanche for the first three days and enjoyed the challenge of trying to keep track of eight playful yearlings running rings around an adult male. Gothic is truly a stunning place to live and work, and what a pleasure to have it to ourselves for a few weeks before it officially opens.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our crew is now in the field.  Of course, now the snow really starts...

Nicole saw a marmot at Stonefield the other day and Timothee writes:
"It's my first year at RMBL as a research assistant and I'm already fond of the place ! We got there last week, and despite the recurrent snow we were able to spot some marmots (shame on me, I've confounded a ground squirrel with a yearling here...) but also to see a pair of coyotes.

We're now waiting for the snow melt and the emergence of our cute rodents. But when... Place your bets !"

Some of his nice photos are below.

Friday, March 22, 2013

OK, Phil's in trouble.

Turns out that you just can't go around predictin' or prognosticatin' about the weather without consequences in our litigious society and the State of Ohio is filing felony charges against our favorite celebrity rodent!

Sad state of affairs!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Congratulations to Julien!

Dr. Julien Martin has just started his new job as a Marie Curie Fellow and a Lecturer at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland.   Join me in congratulating Julien!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Welcome Timothee Fouqueray

Timothee has recently joined us for a two month stay.

He writes:

"After a two-year intensive course in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology and Humanities, I've been accepted in my current school, the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (France), which fortunately really cares of its students! As a graduate student, my studies go from theoretical works to concrete projects, such as the one I'm beginning in my UCLA internship. During the 5 months of my stay here, I'll try to understand the maternal effects on the anogenital distance (a proxy of masculinization and early exposure to testosterone) of yellow-bellied marmots, that is to say how much of an individual anogenital distance is explained by the breeding value of its mother. And I'll have the chance to go in the field, in RMBL, to observe my new favourite rodents until the end of June !

If you want one, there's in attached file a picture of my school."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Did you know...

...that according to a NY Times article, baristas in Sterling Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon, shout out "Marmot!" when an attractive customer is in line.  It seems the baristas stand at attention like marmots following the cry!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In Alaska it's Marmot Day

Did you know that Alaska doesn't celebrate Groundhog Day, but they have an official state holiday called Marmot Day.  You can read about the history of the State Bill here.  Happy Marmot Day!

Happy Groundhog Day

Happy Groundhog Day to all!

Seems it's cloudy all over (including LA!) and early spring is predicted!

Meanwhile, the LA Times visited our annual lab groundhog day party yesterday and wrote a feature article!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Welcome Irene Figueroa

We have a new lab visitor for the next two months.  Irene Figueroa is a PhD student from the CREAF laboratory ( in Barcelona, Catalonia, under the supervision of Dr. Bernat Claramunt Lopez. She has been studying an introduced population of alpine marmot in the Pyrenees since 2008. Her main scientific interest is centered on the ecological and behavioural flexibility of introduces species, using the alpine marmot as a biological model. Thus, part of her research is focused on the comparison between the introduced population of the Pyrenees and the native of the Alps, and she is also studying the learning process of the offspring alarm calls and the behaviour of marmots using a spatially explicit approach.

Welcome Irene!

A photo of their alpine study site.