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Geomorphologic Groundhog Day

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We don’t know how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if he could chuck wood, but we know how much sediment he moves per year…

Biogeomorphology, also referred as ecogeomorphology or sometimes as zoogeomorphology, is the study of the linkages between ecology and geomorphology, or in simple terms between life forms and landforms. Such two-way interactions range from simple tracks left by an organism in the landscape to the complex cycles of energy and matter transfer (like for the element carbon) between the biosphere and the lithosphere.

The role of animals in the evolution of a landscape is still poorly studied, but one of the most interesting processes modifying a landscape involves digging animals.
Mammals move earth for two reasons – to collect food (digging up roots or other animals) or to dig a burrow as shelter. Large rodents, like the groundhogs (genus Marmota), are feared for their burrowing habits in agricultural areas, as the entrance to – or the collapse of – their extensive burrow systems can pose a hazard for the machinery or the livestock.
The density of burrows varies with the climate and environment, for example a humid mountain area can provide more food and guarantee the survival of more individuals than a dry steppe.
The increased activity of a large number of marmots can influence the surface runoff and erosion of a mountain slope and redistribute humus, moisture and mineral components in the soil profile. The research by Tadzhiyev & Odinoshoyev (1978) “Influence of marmots on soil cover of the eastern Pamirs” on the digging capacity of red marmots showed that they could move almost 28 cubic meter (that´s almost the load of a medium-sized truck) of earth per hectare (100 x 100 meter) in a single year. This suggests that on local scale marmots and relatives can play a role as geomorphologic factor.


BUTLER, D.R. (2009) Zoogeomorphology – Animals as Geomorphic Agents. Cambridge University Press: 239
GOUDIE, A.S. (ed) (2001): Encyclopedia of Geomorphology Volume 1 A-I. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London – New York: 1156

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

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

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  1. 1. rugeirn 6:52 pm 02/4/2013

    To me, the most impressive transformer of landscape is the beaver. Follow up on some of the references found in this search ( and you’ll see why.

    Link to this

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