Marmots, out of the scientific shadow

FALMOUTH, Maine — Groundhog Day may be an ironic holiday, but it remains the day set aside in the United States for one animal: Marmota ...


FALMOUTH, Maine — Groundhog Day may be an ironic holiday, but it remains the day set aside in the United States for one animal: Marmota monax, the largest and most widespread of the groundhog genus, found chewing flowering plants – or, at this time of year, huddle underground – from Alabama to Alaska.

Yet, for all their cultural significance, marmots remain, so to speak, in the shadows. Relatively little is known about their social life. They are considered solitary, which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s not entirely right either.

“These guys are a lot more social than we thought,” said Christine Maher, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Southern Maine and one of the few scientists to study groundhog behavior.

Dr. Maher arrived in Maine in 1998 with a keen interest in animal sociality. Marmots, a genus spanning 15 species of varying sociality — including alpine marmots living in multigenerational family groups, semi-social yellow-bellied marmots, and ostensibly antisocial marmots — were a natural subject.

She found an ideal study site at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, a 65-acre sanctuary of rolling meadows and forests on the coast of Falmouth, Maine. There, she tagged no less than 513 groundhogs, tracking their fates and relationships in great detail.

The resulting family trees and territorial maps, as well as records of their daily interactions and activities, are unique. “No one had looked at them over time as individuals,” Dr Maher said.

Gilsland groundhogs won’t emerge until late February, but one morning last summer Dr Maher was setting peanut butter-baited live traps around a hidden burrow in a shrub beside the center of reception. Peanut butter quickly proved irresistible.

The trap offered a rare close-up view of a marmot: elegantly sturdy, with small, serious eyes, delicate whiskers, and fur ranging from auburn on his broad chest to a mix of chestnut, straw, and russet on the rest. of his body. A round ear bore a tiny bronze tag bearing the number 580.

“It’s Torch,” said Dr. Maher, who names each of his study subjects. Torch was a first-time mother. Dr. Maher skillfully transferred her into a heavy bag to allow for safe weighing. She also took a hair sample for later DNA analysis and measured how much Torch squirmed for several 30-second intervals – a simple personality test..

After sending the irritated but unharmed Torch back to her burrow, Dr. Maher began a circuit of Gilsland. She checked several still-empty traps for Barnadette, who was raising her puppies under an old barn. Near the barn was a sprawling community garden and the assortment of their compost pile.

As anyone whose garden is visited by groundhogs can attest, the arrangement created some tension. Charles Kaufmann, one of the garden coordinators, acknowledged that conflicts with the gardeners had occurred, but were resolved peacefully. Among their peacekeeping tools are soft fences that groundhogs find difficult to climb.

“Audubon is for the preservation and appreciation of the natural world,” Kaufman said. “We feel compelled to live with this perspective and this philosophy.” Plus, “groundhog puppies are just the cutest things in the world.”

Along a freshly mown path leading from the gardens to a meadow, Dr Maher spotted a groundhog. Through her telescope, she identified Athos, a yearling and brother to Porthos and Aramis.

She named them after the Three Musketeers, which was a trick to help her remember them – but it was also appropriate. A few days before, she had watched them hanging out together at the burrow where they were born.

Such interactions belie the species’ solitary reputation, and conventional wisdom holds that juvenile marmots leave home to seek new territories just months after birth. In Gilsland, Dr Maher found that about half of the juveniles remain for a full year in their natal territory. When they finally leave, they often stay close by.

“It depends on whether they can make a deal with their mother,” Dr Maher said. “Some moms are ready to do it. Others are not. Mothers can even bequeath territories to their daughters. Dr. Maher suspected that Athos’ mother had left Athos the family burrow.

As the groundhogs mature, their interactions become less friendly – ​​the Three Musketeers probably wouldn’t stay together much longer – but they aren’t entirely antagonistic either. Dr. Maher also found his marmots to be friendlier to relatives than to unrelated people.

The result is a community of related marmots with overlapping territories. Some people venture further or come from afar, which helps keep the gene pool fresh – but a kinship-based structure remains. The Gilsland Farm marmots could be understood to live in something like a loose clan, its members keeping their distance but still crossing paths and maintaining relationships.

“You have all these networks of sisters living together, aunts, cousins, extending outward,” Dr Maher said. “It had been suggested, but I don’t think people knew how much it was happening.”

Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who leads a long-term study of yellow-bellied marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, said Dr Maher’s data “enhances our understanding of benefits of having Social Connections.” He added, “It allows us to better appreciate the nuanced complexity of less visible Social Connections.”

An open question is whether the patterns observed by Dr Maher at Gilsland Farm are common to other marmot populations. Their behaviors may vary depending on local circumstances, she said.

The marmots at Gilsland Farm live on what amounts to a habitat island; to the west is an impassable estuary, to the east a dangerous highway. To the north and south are suburban neighborhoods rich in potential housing but bristling with unwelcoming landlords. “They are considered vermin,” Dr. Maher said of groundhogs. “People don’t seem to think about it much.”

When young groundhogs leave Gilsland Farm, they tend to get run over or pulled. So there are advantages to staying at home, provided there is enough food. There are also mutual benefits to be shared: for example, an alarm whistle caused by an approaching fox would be heard by all nearby.

From an evolutionary perspective, the genes of somewhat social groundhogs spread more easily than more solitary ones, and Dr. Maher thinks this actually represents a return to something like an ancestral state. Prior to European settlement, marmots would have lived in glades—created by fires, storms, beaver activity, and Indigenous practices—separated by inhospitable forests.

“They were forced to live closer to each other, so they were more tolerant of each other and more social,” she said. “When the Europeans cleared all that forest, they actually increased the amount of habitat available to marmots. Maybe they became less social because they could spread out.

Neighborhoods don’t have to be dangerous, though. Dr Maher hopes that a deeper appreciation of groundhog sociality can help people become more sympathetic towards them and even graciously share the suburban landscape with them, as the gardeners at Gilsland Farm do.

His work also intersects with some non-scientific endeavors, such as the social media presence of Chunk the groundhog – followed by more than 500,000 people on Instagram – and the amateur naturalists whose 15 years of backyard sightings have produced the unique intimate accounts of Groundhog Wonderland.

“People don’t usually have this idea of ​​how they live,” said John Griffin, director of urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States. In his own work, Griffin often encounters the sense that groundhogs are intruders. He thinks a lack of familiarity – for all their ubiquity, marmots are often only spotted lining roadsides or scurrying for cover – leads to intolerance or an exaggerated sense of risk. .

Knowing that animals are social can change how they are perceived, Griffin said. “I don’t know how to quantify it, but I think it’s valuable,” he said. “Conflict resolution is a matter of perspective.”

Tolerance would benefit more than groundhogs. Their digging helps aerate and enrich the soil, Dr. Maher said, and many other creatures use their burrows. Groundhog Burrows Can Even Create Hot Spots local biodiversity.

Athos, at least, would be spared the suburban gauntlet. “The fact that she hasn’t left yet makes me think she’s going to stay,” Dr Maher said.

Athos moved slowly along the path, eating the clovers and dandelions that would sustain her through the coming winter. From time to time, she stood on two legs and looked around. Dr. Maher noted his activities on a laptop computer.

When an approaching pedestrian sent Athos rushing through tall grass, Dr Maher explained how the system worked. “I just typed in two-letter codes for their behavior,” she said. “Feed. Walk. Alert. Run. Newlywed. Dig, once in a while. They don’t have a huge repertoire.

She seemed slightly embarrassed about this. Passers-by, she admitted, are sometimes amused that she spends so much time staring at seemingly annoying creatures.

With a rustle, Athos resumed his way. “Oh, she’s here!” exclaimed Dr. Maher, the enthusiasm in her voice suggesting that after all these years she still finds groundhogs very interesting.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Marmots, out of the scientific shadow
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