Marmots are rodents. They live in the northern hemisphere of the earth, except in the Arctic. They rather like cold areas, for example in the mountains or in a steppe.
Marmots are about half a meter long. Then there’s the tail. They weigh a few kilograms. The dense fur is usually brownish so that they are well camouflaged. The legs are short. They are good at digging caves. In there they sleep at night, raise their young, and hibernate.
There are 14 different types of marmots. They belong to the marmot genus and the squirrel family. Their closest relatives, who we know best, are the squirrels.
The individual species behave quite differently: The woodchuck from Canada is a loner. In the case of the yellow-bellied marmot, also from Canada, a male and some related females live in a cave. However, most marmot species live in colonies. A couple is considered the boss along with their younger relatives. They can move out later and try to find their own colony.
Marmots communicate with sounds that sound like whistles to us humans. We often think of birds. But the whistles are screams. They warn each other of danger from predators. These are often birds of prey.
Only one species of marmot lives in Europe, the alpine marmot. It lives quite high up in the mountains. Grass and herbs grow there, but no more trees because the air is too thin for them. Apart from the Alps, there are only places like this in the Carpathians. This is a mountain range that stretches from Austria through Romania to Serbia.
How does the alpine marmot live?
Because the alpine marmot is the only marmot species in our country, we usually just call it marmot. In southern Germany and Austria, it is also called Mankei or Murmel. In Switzerland, it is often a Mungg. Alpine marmots have only existed in the Black Forest and the Pyrenees since humans released them there.
Of the rodents, only the beaver and porcupine are larger in Europe. An adult alpine marmot measures almost fifty centimeters from head to bottom. The weight depends a lot on the season. In the summer, the animals eat up fat reserves for the winter. So you need meadows with grass and herbs. They also eat roots, leaves, and young shoots. In winter they lose about a third of their weight.
The alpine marmots use their burrow for many years. The bottom needs a sufficiently thick layer of soil for them to dig their burrows. The burrows can be very large and widely branched. There are few entrances and many exits should an escape be necessary.
The caves for the summer are just a little underground. There they sleep at night. They raise their young in special nest chambers. The tubes for the winter go deeper down because the ground doesn’t freeze there. Hibernation lasts a little longer than half a year.
How do the young animals live?
Hardly awakened from hibernation, the chief male mates with the chief female. The other animals shouldn’t get a chance, but sometimes they manage to do it anyway. After about five weeks, the mother gives birth to two to six young. They have no fur, cannot hear or see, and have no teeth. A cub weighs about 30 grams, so it takes three for the weight of a bar of chocolate.
The young suckle milk from their mother. They grow vigorously and develop so far that they can leave the burrow for the first time after about six weeks. From then on they look for their own food. Only those who eat enough and put on fat survive the first hibernation.
The young animals become sexually mature after the second hibernation at the earliest. So you can only make young yourself from then on. To do this, however, they have to emigrate from home, find their own area, and build a cave there. This is very dangerous because during this time they have no protective den and no family members to warn them.
What enemies does the alpine marmot have?
The most common predator comes from the air. It’s the golden eagle. He shoots down and pounces on younger animals in particular before they can disappear into the cave. A less common enemy is the red fox. If possible, the marmots warn each other with their whistles, but sometimes that’s just not enough.
It used to be thought that the alpine marmots shared the work and that there were certain guards who were always on guard. Today we know, however, that this is not true. Each animal eats and rests in between. If you rest, you can keep a good lookout for enemies. So the supervisors take turns.
The biggest enemy, however, is loneliness in the first winter after emigration. Every second animal that has to spend the first winter alone dies. The first winter in the parents is also dangerous, but not so much. Of the older animals, only one in about twenty dies each year from a predator.
Another enemy is the man. In the past, many alpine marmots were killed by hunters. They ate the meat, used the fur, and used the fat as medicine. Some people use marmot ointment for joint pain. However, the Alpine marmots are not threatened with extinction. The state dictates how many animals may be hunted.