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Marmot meltdown averted: Vancouver Island species on the brink of extinction regaining social bonds

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Vancouver Island marmotBiologists in Canada are encouraged that critically endangered Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis) are once again learning how to be marmots—a tough task since the species’s population had crashed so far that the animals almost lost the knowledge of how to exist as a society.

In a classic example of what is known as the Allee effect, the Vancouver Island marmots experienced a social meltdown when their numbers declined, which in turn made it harder for the species to stay alive. The Allee effect was first postulated in 1931 by zoologist Warder Clyde Allee, who proposed that when a species’s population crashes, so will its societal structure, making it more likely to go extinct.

This rare marmot is one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals. After nearly going extinct a few decades ago, M. vancouverensis benefited from a captive breeding program hosted at the Toronto Zoo and other institutions, but it hasn’t been an easy road. The population has fluctuated from 25 to 30 animals to 300, then down to 75. Today, approximately 210 live in the wild.

According to Justin Brashares, co-author of a new study published in the June 9 online edition of the Journal of Animal Ecology, marmot colonies used to rely on the group to warn one another about the presence of predators. But a few years ago there were only 25 wild Vancouver Island marmots spread out over a 200-hectare preserve. “So what happens when there’s only one member in a colony? There’s no one watching your back, basically,” Brashares told the Victoria Times Colonist. Brashares conducted this research while he was affiliated with the University of British Columbia. He is now an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.

During the course of a five-year study between 2001 and 2005, Brashares and his team found that as marmot numbers decreased, they were less likely to communicate with one another, and more likely to be aggressive toward their fellows. As a result, their predation rate increased. The marmots were also more likely to wander great distances (sometimes crossing two mountains) in search of other marmots, which weakened them and make them even easier targets for predators. Furthermore, the animals need to hibernate together to increase their chance to surviving through winter.

Luckily, more and more M. vancouverensis are being reintroduced into the wild (another 80 to 90 captive-bred marmots are due to be released this summer)—and they are finally breeding in natural conditions, which they weren’t doing a few years ago. “We can now test whether they’ll regain their sociality, whether they’ll remember to do alarm calls,” Brashares said.

According to Don Doyle of the Marmot Recovery Foundation, signs are already good. “Now we’ve reestablished some of the colonies to larger sizes and we’re getting all kinds of whistling and normal behavior,” he told the newspaper.

Image: The Vancouver Island marmot, via the Marmot Recovery Foundation





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  1. 1. olderone 10:26 pm 07/9/2010

    It’s always a pleasure to read about man helping restore animals on the verge of extinction. The patience & long term mind set, instead of short sightedness of the moment, is an inspiration to what science can do.

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  2. 2. rainforestronda 6:29 pm 07/10/2010

    How arrogant can one get thinking man & science are helping restore animals??? The only thing short-sighted here are the greedy corporations & their supporters who destroy the planet & then turn it over to the taxpayer & volunteer organizations to restore & rehabilitate. There is no mention in this article about the forest companies who caused the population decline of the Vancouver Marmot in the first place by road building & logging high elevation old growth. The forest companies continue this practise to fill their pockets and the pockets of their shareholders while the taxpayer is left on the hook to restore & rehabilitate.

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  3. 3. olderone 6:55 pm 07/10/2010

    Are you referring to MOI, as being arrogant in my post? If you are, then I say you are sadly misinformed. The brief didn’t have anything to do with mans activities that caused the near extinction, but that because of the scientific mind set, the Marmot is still with us today. I think you missed the whole point, that your quick to criticize, because you don’t think things through. Do you use modern technology? Work in any type of industry? I could go on, but, choose not to pick a fight. Anything that Science can do to slow or reverse the destructive course that the short sighted mind set has unleashed, I believe is good. Unfortunately, progress has taken a very large toll, will continue to do so unless the forward mind set becomes the norm. Consider the foot print you leave!

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  4. 4. rainforestronda 8:33 pm 07/10/2010

    Sorry but it is you who missed the point. You sound exactly like the forest company folks who to create diversion ask people if they live in a house rather than address the real question about their greedy unsustainable practises.
    For your information I go out of my way to consume less of this planet. I don’t even have a cell phone & am proud of it.

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  5. 5. olderone 9:17 pm 07/10/2010

    I didn’t miss the point, but apparently you have. You seem blinded by your belief in your self, name calling, etc. Great that you don’t have a cell phone, neither do I. In fact, it’s my belief that if God wanted MOI to have one, then I would have been born with one in my ear. But, I ask you, do you live in a cave, consume only what nature provides, eschew human contact? Your using a machine to bicker back & forth here, so I take it that you consume of the plenty we have in this country. Very admirable that you have set your standards up a notch, but your still a member of society, the consuming type. Perhaps, if you were to step back away from your rant towards anyone who may present another view than the one you feel is right, then perhaps a dialog could be achieved. To keep lumping those that have a different opinion than the one you have, is either misinformed, spoiled attitude, or so close minded, that you become that, which you raille against.

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  6. 6. rainforestronda 10:17 pm 07/10/2010

    Funny how you do not recognize that you are describing yourself & the only one who has done any name calling.

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  7. 7. olderone 10:58 pm 07/10/2010

    Funny how your in denial too. Look at your self. I guess I got under your skin calling you spoiled. Sorry if you take it personal. But you can enlighten MOI beyond calling names, IE, greedy, arrogant, that I sound like the so called destroyers of the environmental. But, the real question is, how old are you? I assume that you’re younger than I, so enlighten MOI.

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  8. 8. Karl Johanson 4:08 pm 07/11/2010

    Here in BC we have a provincial government that believes the demonstrated meme that population growth (domestic and imported) is essential to an economy. Human population growth with likely take out the marmots habitats soon enough.

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  9. 9. rainforestronda 2:30 pm 07/12/2010

    You got it Karl …. except corporate greed has already destroyed the Vancouver Island Marmot habitat. The corporate forest companies were not satisfied with logging the valley bottoms and the mountain sides but now their logging roads lead right into Vancouver Island Marmot alpine habitat. Did you know that thousands of kilometres of logging roads lace Vancouver Island? Where it is too costly to build roads on the steep slopes forest corporations usually contract out clear cutting & removal of the forest by helicopter logging. You would be shocked by the amount of old growth forest that is left on the ground to waste because after they fall the tree they discover it has shattered or has wind check or rot so it isn’t high enough quality for lumber. The only reason we have any Marmots at all is that humans are spending a lot of money breeding Vancouver Island Marmots in captivity & then releasing them back on the mountain. The Ministry of Environment baited cougars, wolves & golden eagles near the V.I. Marmot colonies to shoot them. So now we have arrogant humans pitting one animal against another. The mainland of BC is mostly public land forest which has a higher standard than private forest land, where the fox was given the task of guarding the hen house when the BC Liberal government brought in the Private Managed Forest Land Act along with the Private Managed Forest Land Council. On Vancouver Island, especially the south east side of the Island where Vancouver Island Marmot habitat is, you find that more than 90% of the land base is private industrial forest land owned & operated by corporations. This is just one tiny bit of the destruction to the environment that is happening on Vancouver Island.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 5:05 pm 07/14/2010

    I love it when eco-freaks try to out freak each other. There is nothing wrong with sustainable logging. It is clear cutting that needs to be crushed and it’s proponents flogged. There is only one thing that a human can do to really save the environment and that is have only one or no daughters. Women control the rate of population expansion and population pressures are our most destructive trait.

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  11. 11. olderone 6:13 pm 07/14/2010

    Curious, where do you categorize yourself in this debate, beyond labeling others? If you’re labeling MOI as an "Eco-freak", you are totally wrong. I posted a comment about the Science of restoring a species on the brink of extinction. I also got into a back & forth with another individual who took offense to my comment. Yes, there was some unintended questions from my end, but it had nothing to do with the story line that I could fathom. So, if you want to play a game, then perhaps you might enlighten the others if you are an only child, no other brothers or sisters? A rant, is still a rant, regardless of where one sits on the fence. If one is informed, then one already knows that the Human has decimated a large part of the habitat of the Animal kingdom, rendering the extinction of vast numbers of them. You might also include the Human race in this scenario, so, at the rate the industrial & Governmental destruction is going, you perhaps won’t have to worry about your Grand children enjoying what’s left of the earth. If your so inclined to, read the trilogy: Red, Green, Blue Mars, by Kim Stanly Robinson, it will show just what is taking place today in this world.

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