Earth Notes
3:22 am
Wed March 18, 2009

Earth Notes - Climate Change II: Marmots

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Climate Change II: Marmots

This week Earth Notes continues its series on climate change in the southwestern uplands with a look at some mountain dwellers. Back east the big rodents known as woodchucks are famous for their starring role on Groundhog Day. Out west their close relatives are called marmots, or whistlepigs and they may be harbingers of new climate patterns.

Yellow-bellied marmots are common in the high mountains of Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico. They live in grassy meadows, among boulders at the forest edge, and up into open alpine areas.

You're likely to hear them before you see them. A marmot shows no shyness when a trespasser enters its territory. Standing sentinel atop a boulder, it emits a shrill, ear-splitting call. It's a warning to all comers coyote, bear, dog, or human to keep a respectful distance. The call also serves to warn nearby marmots.

As nights turn chillier, marmots go into hibernation. Well insulated with layers of fat, they retreat to a den around September and stay there through the winter.

But spring for marmots appears to be coming earlier. Marmots monitored at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab near Crested Butte, Colorado, have been emerging well over a month earlier than they did two decades ago. Rising air temperatures toward the end of April are luring them out.

But an earlier spring isn't necessarily a benefit, as snow may still be on the ground and food may not be available. Maybe that's a new marmot warning signal one we may want to heed.

-Rose Houk