Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Himalayan Marmot and the "Gold-Digging Ants"

The Himalayan marmot is found at higher altitudes than almost any other mammal on earth. This ground squirrel lives in parts of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, and southern China, at elevations ranging from 3500-5200 meters (11,500-17,000 feet). It is about the size of a small house cat, with chocolate-brown fur and yellow patches on its face and chest.

Like most ground squirrels, Himalayan marmots live in colonies. The size of the colonies vary depending on the resources available. They typically inhabit high, arid meadows and steppes. They dig unusually deep burrows, probably to protect them during hibernation from the harsh conditions of the Himalayan winter.

There is an interesting story told by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, which scholars now believe may involve the Himalayan marmot. Herodotus (484-425 BC), who traveled in and wrote about the Persian empire, wrote about a strange species of large, furry "ants" that lived in far eastern regions of that land. These ants, he had been told, lived in an area covered in sandy soil with a high content of gold dust. They would dig burrows under the ground, and the people who inhabited that region would follow behind and collect the gold dust that the ants unearthed.

Recently, ethnologists have suggested that the furry "ants" that Herodotus had heard about were actually Himalayan marmots. There is a region in northern Pakistan, the Deosai Plateau, which has a sandy soil rich in gold dust, just as Herodotus described, and which is populated by Himalayan marmots. And the people of that region, a tribal group called the Minaro, do indeed collect the gold dust unearthed by the marmots. And in Persian, the word for "marmot" is similar to the word for "ant." So Herodotus, relying on translators for the stories he collected on his travels, may have been confused by the similarities in these words.

Psst! Hey, buddy, want some gold dust?

Whatever the truth may be behind this story, the Himalayan marmot is a fascinating creature, just like squirrels the world over.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dan: LOVE the site. The mix of science and fun, education and information, and the use of different media. Nice. I've started a new blog, basically a photo essay of the squirrels, chipmunks, birds and wildlife in the backyard, with facts attached. Be curious what you think. In the meantime, I will be subscribing and enjoying. Best of luck with the new job!
    - K C Bailey