Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Marmots in the Pyrenees

Marmot, Hecho Valley
Last week out walking with a group I was lucky to get close enough to a Marmot for a decent photo.  We see them very often but usually in the Pyrenees they are very wary and shoot down their burrow at any sign of danger.  This is unlike some places in the Alps where they are practically tame.

Marmota marmota - The Alpine marmot, is Europe´s biggest rodent and was present in the Pyrenees until about 10,000 years ago when the end of the ice age and temperature increases wiped them out.  This could also have been exacerbated by hunting by an increasing human population which moved in as the glaciers retreated.  Marmots were re-introduced on the French side of the Pyrenees from 1955 as a way of increasing prey for Golden eagles.  Since then they have spread over both sides of the range and, year by year, you can observe new colonies being established.  For more info on the spread of Marmots in the Spanish Pyrenees see:  http://digital.csic.es/bitstream/10261/36541/1/28_distr_mam.pdf   .

The animals live in family groups with the young staying for two or three years after birth before moving away.  Their ideal habitat is mountain pasture at between 1400 and 2900 metres usually with rocks under which they dig their burrows and hide from predators.   They eat grasses and herbs and, during the winter, hibernate and reproduce in their burrows, occasionally emerging - sometimes in winter when we are out ski touring or snow shoeing we see tracks around their burrows.

Marmots are an important prey of Golden eagles and foxes and when a group of Marmots is grazing there is always one animal on guard duty - usually standing on top of a rock - looking out for danger.  At the first sign of danger it will give a high pitched call to warn the family.  The greater, or more imminent the danger, the louder and more intense the calls.

The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484 - 425 B.C)  told of gold digging ants in the Himalayas.  This ´legend´ could have been based on fact. On the India Pakistan border the closely related Himalayan Marmot´s burrow digging reveals dark soil sometimes containing gold dust.  Local tribal peoples apparently still collect the gold.  See an article on this at : http://www.marmotburrow.ucla.edu/goldants.htmlconta

On a more sinister note the Marmot could have been (and still be) the primary carrier of Bubonic plague which killed over 25% of the Eurasian population in the 14th Century.  They, like other rodents, carry the Yersinia bacteria responsible for the plague which is transmitted to humans and other mammals by flea bites.  Bubonic plague was spread by Bobak Marmots in Siberia in 1910.  Marmot pelts were in high demand and hunters caught and spread the disease which killed 60,000 people in Siberia and Manchuria.  See: http://www.qi.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=3309&start=0&sid=1a432302159151095c7890a6bbf41493

In 2010 a chinese man died of the plague after eating an infected marmot. see: http://www.examiner.com/article/chinese-man-dies-from-the-bubonic-plague

Probably best not to eat Marmot!

No comments: