Friday, October 19, 2012

Squirrel Facts: The Alpine Marmot

The Alpine Marmot is a ground squirrel that lives in high grasslands of the Alps and other European mountain ranges. Their range includes parts of Alpine France, Switzerland, and Italy, Austria, southern Germany, and Yugoslavia. It is one of the largest squirrels, measuring about 18-21 inches in length not including the short tail, which is slightly more than an inch long. The coat is thick, reddish-brown or gray.

Like many ground squirrels, the Alpine marmot is highly social, living in colonies of four to around 50 members. The colonies consist of a dominant pair along with their offspring from several years. Typically the male offspring will leave the colony after their first or second winter, as will some of the females, but other females will stay with the group. When the dominant female dies, one of the female offspring will inherit the dominant position.

Members of the colony live in a system of interconnected burrows. They spend the spring and summer months gaining the weight that they will need to survive their long winter hibernation, which lasts more than half of the year. They feed on seeds, grasses, flowers, and bulbs, but will also eat insects and sometimes birds' eggs. In the spring, just after hibernation, an adult Alpine marmot may weigh only around seven pounds, but by the beginning of the next hibernation in the fall its weight will increase to as much as 18 pounds.

Mating takes place immediately after the end of hibernation, and usually three, but sometimes up to seven, young are born in the spring. At the beginning of the winter hibernation, usually in October, the marmots in a colony will retire to their burrow network. Adult Alpine marmots huddle with the young to keep them warm. The last marmot to enter the burrow will plug the entrance with grass, dirt, and feces to keep the cold air and predators out.

Alpine marmots are extremely powerful diggers. Using their fore and hind feet they can penetrate earth that even a pickax would have trouble breaking. Burrows are continually expanded over several generations and can become quite complex, with large "living areas" and other dead end tunnels that are used as "toilets."

Alpine marmots are usually very shy and wary of intruders. One member of the colony will usually stand watching for signs of danger, and if a predator or intruder is seen, will give a series whistles, sending the entire colony running to the burrow for cover.

Remarkably, one human, a young boy named Matteo Walch, seems to have gained the trust of a colony of Alpine marmots in Austria. As reported by the Daily Mail of the UK, this eight year old boy befriended the colony during a family vacation four years ago, and ever since has been welcomed by the marmots during his family's annual two-week summer holidays.

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