Saturday, September 17, 2016

Yellow-bellied Marmot: Denizen of the High Sierra

You wake before dawn, hike miles uphill through forests, scramble boulders and steps etched into granite on your journey up, up, up.  You glimpse the summit ahead, still far above.  Finding hand-holds in the rock, you climb; or you wait in line, gather your courage, take hold of a cable and tow yourself up a ridiculously steep slab of granite.  At last, after half a day's worth of sweat, several liters of water and a few packages of trail-mix, you have arrived: the glorious granite summit of a peak in the High Sierra.  You take a deep breath, savor the moment, begin to take in the view.

And you are amazed by the sight before you: the lofty summit is populated by what look like giant ground squirrels.  The plump critters size you up at once and approach brazenly, eyeing your peanut butter sandwich.
Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), at home in the High Sierra.
These large rodents, weighing up to eleven pounds, are yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) and they are in fact related to squirrels, in the family Sciuridae and order Rodentia.  They dig elaborate burrows in meadows near rocky outcrops and talus slopes of the Sierra (as well as other mountainous regions of the west). 
Enjoying the view from the top of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park.
At home in seemingly inhospitable high rocky places, you may wonder how on earth marmots are able to clamber up such steep boulders, reaching heights you struggled the better part of a day to achieve.  Their low-slung bodies and long claws make the task easy.
A Half Dome marmot, enjoying natural marmot fare, mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides)
Yellow-bellied marmots live in family groups, and their communal latrine sites can often be found among boulders.  Family groups will post a sentinel to keep a lookout for predators while other individuals feed on grasses, flowers, and even insects of the high meadows.  Marmots enter true hibernation during the cold of winter, huddling together as a colony in their burrow and conserving as much energy as possible.
Resist those adorable faces; marmots are far better off without peanut M&Ms and raisins!
These marmots may seem too bold for their own good, especially in popular places like Yosemite National Park, but they should never be fed human food - not even nuts!  The marmot needs to remain wild, just as the bear and all other wildlife needs to remain wild.

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