What happens when squirrels invade the tundra? Well, in one case, they got chubby, fluffy, flappy-tailed, and occasionally kinda cranky, sorta like a hydrophobic alpine beaver. Here in the Rockies, they’re called yellow-bellied marmots. Until recently, I’d rarely seen one and had never heard one call. They seemed to maintain a strict code of silence around me. Little did I expect that what they were capable of.
Last weekend I climbed Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. We saw ptarmigan, elk, and scads of hyperactive pikas — a skittering, squeaking alpine rabbit relative. But the best part of all was stumbling on two marmots who were rooting in the soil and seemed to be chewing on something — grass or roots, perhaps. I was in for a treat.
I don’t know if these marmots were annoyed with each other or not, but it sure seemed like it. I have a friend who wants to open a bar one day called “The Angry Squirrel”. I think she envisions some sort of neon sign on the front with a squirrel with an acorn in one hand and an arm that alternates lighting up in two positions to imitate an shaking fist. Maybe accompanied by some sort of cranky chittering noise, which anyone whose ticked off a squirrel in the woods will recognize. But now I think “The Angry Marmot” could definitely work as well.
Marmots are ground squirrels. The ground squirrels evolved around 20-30 million years ago, shortly after squirrels as a whole. Their descendants all prefer life with feet planted firmly on the ground and standing up on said hind feet for extended periods of time. They include the chipmunks, the prairie dogs of North America (themselves extremely entertaining to watch and full of interesting calls that have the rudiments of language), the marmots, the American groundhog of Groundhog Day fame, and assorted other ground-based squirrels.
Marmots live in burrows, often under rockpiles, and hibernate in family groups in winter. I saw one tossing a few scoops of dirt out of its home last week. Marmots, like many ground squirrels, make a variety of calls, including “chucks”, “trills”, and alarm calls. But the grumbling noises these marmots made seem — to me — to match the descriptions of none of these.
Interestingly, they etymology of marmot may have something to do with the noises that it makes. According to my dictionary, “marmot” may come from the French root marm-, an onomatopeoia meaning to mumble. I can now see that.
In 2010, Alaska decided to start celebrating February 2 as “Marmot Day” in lieu of Groundhog Day, due to the relative abundance of the former over the latter in The Last Frontier. No word on whether the marmot saw its shadow and whether that would mean another four or merely three more months of winter. However, it seems much more likely that on February 2 in Alaska, the marmots were oblivious to their big day and snoozing soundly with their alarm clocks firmly set for “May”.