Marmotte des Alpes
Marmots are medium sized rodents that live throughout alpine areas of France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Slovenia and live at an altitude of 800 to 3000 metres. With an existing population in the French Alps they were reintroduced in the early 1950’s to the Pyrenees where they had disappeared several million years ago. Releases were also made in the Jura and Lozère where they have successfully settled.
They are about 50 to 60cm in length with adults weighing as much as 8kg prior to hibernation and as little as 2.5kg just after hibernation. They have a thickset squat body with a coat that is a mixture of blonde, reddish and dark grey fur and a short bushy tail which is darker as is the top of the head.
They have a short and wide muzzle with the eyes almost parallel on each side of its head giving them a wide field of vision which is of paramount importance if they are to avoid predation when out of their tunnel complexes. They have powerful legs and claws that enable them to burrow and tunnel in the stony and rocky soil that often forms the alpine meadows. Small ears that are almost invisible buried in their thick fur and like all rodents that live in burrows they have long stiff hairs growing around the mouth called vibrissae in order to orientate themselves in the total darkness underground.
They live in Alpine pastures in uncovered wide open spaces where they can see their predators in the distance when they are outside providing them with the opportunity to quickly rush to the nearest tunnel entrance. One can often see an alpine marmot "standing" while it keeps a look-out for potential predators or other dangers. Warnings are given, by emitting a series of loud whistles to enable all members of a colony to take cover.
They are social animals that live in family colonies and over time burrow complexes can become quite extensive and each will have a dominant breeding pair. Living areas are at the ends of tunnels and this is also where females will have their young after furnishing it with grasses, straw and other bedding material. The period of reproduction of the marmots takes place between the month of April and the month of June, essentially this is immediately after hibernation. Following a gestation period of about four weeks she gives birth to between 2 and 6 young which are initially unable to see and totally dependent on her. Breastfeeding lasts about 6 weeks and the young Marmots are self-sufficient after 8-9 weeks.
They are diurnal and leave the burrow at dawn to feed. Although not totally vegetarian their diet is mainly composed of plants, (herbs and seeds), but they will happily consume spiders, worms, beetles and other insects.
From around the month of October when the temperatures start to drop the marmots will commence hibernation and will not wake up again until about the month of April making this one of the longest hibernation periods of any mammal when their body temperature descends to around 8°C and their heartbeat can reduce to twice a minute. As mentioned above their body weight can reduce by two thirds over winter and some starve due to loss of body fat.
Estimated life expectancy is between 15 and 20 years. Sexual maturity is reached rather late for a rodent because it is only at the end of their second year that they will be sexually mature.
Although they have quite a few natural predators such as fox, wolf, marten, some birds from the Crow family and Eagles they are not an animal that is considered threatened in France which is mainly due to the lack of human disruption in the places they inhabit other than people pursuing light leisure activities such as walking most of whom will appreciate seeing these rather charming rodents running around and standing upright to look around.