Alpine marmots have plump and sturdy bodies, with their body mass changing drastically from one season to another. Their fur color ranges from a mixture of blond, reddish and dark gray. These animals are excellent diggers, and can penetrate soil that is hard to work with a pickaxe. Up to nine months of the year is spent in hibernation.
Alpine marmots occur in central as well as southern Europe, living in the Alps, Carpathians, the Pyrenees, Tatras, and the northern Apennines in Italy. Their habitat is typically sub-alpine and alpine meadows and pastures of 800 to 3,200m in altitude, where they live in colonies in rocky areas in alluvial soil in deep burrow systems.
Habits and lifestyle
Alpine marmots are diurnal and live within family groups of a pair of parents with usually 10-20 offspring. Young marmots are very playful, and individuals of all ages care for one another by grooming, and participate in nose to nose greetings. Alpine marmots are friendly with their family members but are hostile towards strangers entering their territory. Females are particularly ferocious when guarding their territory, which they mark by smearing secretions from cheek glands onto trees and rocks. Their underground burrows are passed down through the generations of one family. The burrows have 8-10ft tunnels leading to a large room called a den, which is where, in the winter, the whole family hibernates. Around October, they enter the burrow and close up the entrance with grass and hay. Once every 10 or so days they wake up for a brief period, which brings their temperature up and prevents them from freezing.
Diet and nutrition
Alpine marmots are usually monogamous, mating with the same partner more than once. Within one family group, the dominant pair is the only one that regularly mates and produces young, the dominant pair suppressing the reproductive functions of any subordinate animals. These marmots mate a few days after coming out of hibernation, in May. They do not necessarily reproduce each year, this depending on the dominant female’s weight after hibernation. Gestation is for about 34 days. Litters can number 1 to 7. The hair of the young starts to grow from when they are 5 days old and their eyes open when they are about 23 days old. The mother keeps the young hidden in burrows and they do not exit until after weaning, when they are about 40 days old. Alpine marmots reach maturity at about 2 years old.
Eagles, foxes, and humans are the main threats to the Alpine marmots. They could become endangered due to extensive hunting. In Switzerland and Austria alone, 6,000 of these animals are killed every year as trophies. There is a very small population in Rodna (Transylvania, Romania) and it is threatened by poaching. Populations in Austria which live below the timberline are under threat by the loss of open habitats due to abandonment of cattle grazing at high altitudes. There are two subspecies of Alpine marmots, and hybridization with introduced subspecies is a threat to remaining pure-bred groups in the High Tatras of the Alps.
According to the Alpine marmot project resource, it is estimated that the total population size of these animals is over 100,000 individuals. According to the IUCN Red List, 1, 500 individuals occur in Romanian Carpathians. Overall, Alpine marmots’ are abundant in at least parts of its core range in the Alps, their numbers are stable today and they are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
Fun facts for kids
- An Alpine marmot’s thumb has a nail, specialized for digging, while all its other digits have claws.
- These marmots have a social system which involves an individual sitting and keeping watch on "guard-duty" and it will give a high-pitched whistle if it sights any enemies.
- During hibernation, the temperature of Alpine marmots drops to 5 degrees F from 97 degrees and its breathing slows down to 2-3 breaths per minute. Adult temperatures being warmer than that of the young, parents and offspring that are older cuddle close to the youngest ones to control their temperature.
- Alpine marmots, like many rodents, can eat plants that are poisonous to other mammals.
- Marmot fat or "mankei fat" has long been considered a relief for arthritic pain. For about 100 years, people have been rubbing marmot fat onto their bodies for this purpose.