Friday, April 25, 2014

Eager males, or...?

With our first sighting of a marmot emerging from hibernation on our second day, I feel like the season of marmots has begun!

I’ve seen four marmots at the colony I’ve been observing, Picnic. A yearling and an adult emerged from a burrow way up the slope at the base of a cliff. Two adults emerged from burrows at the base of Picnic.

Despite this being my fourth year in the early season, I continue to gain new insights into the behavior of these animals. The other day I saw one of the adults, which I’m assuming is a male for the time being, sniffing around the snow-covered colony, honing in a location, and then digging a hole and disappearing for 20 minutes. After coming back out, he repeated this behavior.

Adult males tend to be one of the first animals to emerge, presumably to mate. At Picnic, in the absence of a bounty of emerged females, this particular animal appears to have taken the initiative to dig through the snow in order to enter burrows that may house semi-hibernating females.

I haven’t seen that animal again since that day. Maybe he went off to another colony to find more females . . . or at least burrows he can access through the snow!

As of right now, I can’t say this is the animal’s intention. However, with careful observations of the females that emerge from particular burrows and genetic data on those females’ pups, we may be able to figure it out!

Picnic colony as of today. I've been spending my mornings here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Early season at RMBL 2014

Although this is only my second year coming to RMBL, this spring sure feels different. The big dust storm that blew in a few weeks ago left this crazy red layer all over the valley. 
It looks kinda cool because it contours the hills in nice patterns but it is not cool for skiing in to the research station! Skiing over it essentially feels like you hit the emergency brake, so here we are actively avoiding it on the road in to RMBL.

We're still waiting to see how the long winter, dirt layer and now warm, rainy days (!) affect our marmot population. So far, a few animals are out and about, but it seems like most are still hunkered down in burrows. Where we don't see marmots, we have seen a few open burrows like the picture below. Since there are no tracks around these holes, it appears that a marmot popped out, had a look around, and decided to go back into torpor. Although it doesn't look like much, these are the kinds of things that us marmoteers get excited about in the early season.
So for now, we are keeping busy catching up on data analysis, shoveling snow to get into cabins, and re-learning how to ski. More updates will come as the marmots start showing their faces, errr...their backs, since all we really care about are their marks.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Good news...and a LOT of snow!

The good news:  Team Marmot PhD student Tiffany Armenta just passed her PhD oral qualifying exams today. Way to go Tiffany.

Other personnel news includes:

PhD student Matt Petelle is working on his last dissertation chapter and plans to graduate in the spring.
PhD student Nicole Munoz is making great progress on a remarkably difficult mathematical model that needs to be written before she writes up her empirical marmot results.
PhD student Adrianna Maldonado is making progress on her population biology models.
And, it looks like we'll be having a new PhD student join the lab to work on marmots...stay tuned for details.

The 'interesting' news:  There's a LOT of snow at RMBL (like over 2m!) and Nicole and Tiffany will be skiing in on the 17th and Line will follow them on the 18th to start our newest year of marmoteering.  David Inouye wrote the other day that based on his calculations, the road will open on 27 May.  billy quickly agreed that it's likely to be a long winter.  The one piece of hope--there was a big dust storm that deposited a layer of red dust on the snow.  When the sun hits the dust-covered snow, the snow can melt VERY quickly.

So, is a long winter good or bad for the marmots?

Well, the big die off of 2011 happened after an exceptionally long winter...and the recovery has taken a while.  We have a lot resting on this year...insofaras we have planned experiments that require marmots.   I expect that if the snow continues and doesn't melt very quickly that we'll have a lot of spring mortality--where the marmots emerge from hibernation through a large snowpack and then starve to death (because there is no food available) or are killed by waiting coyotes (and possibly foxes).

Stay tuned.  I'd love to be out there (UCLA responsibilities call)...the valley is magical in a snowy spring!