The Magical Marmot

I have long-admired the yellow-bellied marmot, that adorable, long-toothed, garrulous creature of the Rocky Mountains. Like many serial anthropomorphizers, I can’t resist the plump, coarse-haired shape; those cute, fur-covered ears; that twitchy little snout; the short, stocky legs; the nonstop chitter-chat.

I have long-admired the yellow-bellied marmot, that adorable, long-toothed, garrulous creature of the Rocky Mountains. Like many serial anthropomorphizers, I can’t resist the plump, coarse-haired shape; those cute, fur-covered ears; that twitchy little snout; the short, stocky legs; the nonstop chitter-chat.

The yellow-belly is one of fourteen marmot species, including the more cosmopolitan groundhog, aka woodchuck, found in the eastern United States. The whole lot of them, cloaked in fur varying from blonde to reddish brown to gray, are species in the genus Marmota, basically a collection of giant ground squirrels who burrow in rocky crevices across the northern climes of the globe, inhabiting plains and fields, mountain meadows, tundras, steppes, woodlots and forest edges. 

Marmots are often described as impish and comical. Yet, our yellow-bellied marmots out here in Montana—also known as whistle pigs and rock chucks—have a crafty side: They infiltrate car engines and shred radiator hoses. They whittle away at backpacks and tents and chew on rubber sandals. Many a sleeping bag has lost stuffing to the roly-poly scamp, and many a marauding marmot has been shooed away from a campsite, scurrying off with powdery, freeze-dried chili dinner plastered across its face.

Marmots lend life to otherwise severe rock scapes, according to a horseback-riding friend of mine, who says with wonder, “Whole hills look to be moving when a community of marmots decides to change houses, visit neighbors or go trick-or-treating for plant snacks.”

When our yellow bellies are not hibernating or hanging out in their burrows (activities that consume about 80 percent of their lives) to avoid predators like golden eagles or coyotes, these social butterflies spend most of their time sunning, grooming each other and foraging for plants, grasses, blossoms, grains, seeds and occasionally insects. When a predator draws near, marmots will warn their mates with high-pitched chippers, squeaks, whistles, chirps, chatters and screams.

Walk into a typical yellow-belly marmot colony and you’ll find it possesses a certain feminine vibe. Studies by Dirk Van Vuren, a professor of wildlife biology in the Department of Wildlife Fish and Conservation Biology at the University of California-Davis, indicate that females in a colony are related. Mothers recruit their daughters to stay, while the typical male leaves the colony at one to two years of age. In fact, he says, “No male during my years of study has ever become territorial in the colony in which he was born.” Rather, males seek out other colonies where their average tenure is two to three years.

And that stuff about destroying cars? Prof. Van Vuren confirms that the soy-based coatings of wires are especially tasty to marmots, and it’s not unusual to find a puddle of antifreeze beneath a car parked at a trailhead. Apparently, marmots are getting high on the sweet-tasting and smelling toxic chemical. The marmots of the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park are particularly aggressive. A National Park Service website recommends at the trailhead driving over a tarp and wrapping it around the entire vehicle to seal the underbody. There’s a picture. 

Meta Marmot

What with its screen celebrity in the cult classic Groundhog Day and its highly-publicized job predicting weather conditions every February 2, the groundhog is perhaps a more glamorous marmot species. Indeed, few marmots are conferred names like Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania; Wiarton Willie, the albino marmot of Ontario, Canada; or Sir Walter Wally of North Carolina. 

Despite all the media exposure, the groundhog/woodchuck is considered the more solitary marmot. Which helps explain its metaphorical utility by way of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau and the poet Robert Frost. Talk about anthropomorphists.

Thoreau “went to the woods” back in 1845, building a little cabin beside Walden Pond to get away from it all. At some point in his book Walden, Thoreau compares himself to a woodchuck building a burrow. Seventy years later, Frost writes his poem “A Drumlin Woodchuck” from the perspective of a woodchuck, who says in the last stanza, “It will be because, though small/As measured against the All,/I have been so instinctively thorough/About my crevice and burrow.” The words “crevice and burrow” are a direct borrow from Thoreau, and Frost has amused himself further by rhyming “thorough” with “Thoreau,” which Thoreau always pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. I can only thank a professor from Colby College for this information, which indicates I spend too much time on the Internet.

Euro Obsession

As you can see, the magical marmot possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. 

For a time, there was the International Conference on the Genus Marmota, held every three to five years. The seventh annual was scheduled for Slovakia in 2011, but my Internet travels indicate little global activity since then.

Switzerland, which feted the marmot on a 1965 postal stamp, has a deifying reverence for marmots. I know this because on a visit to Zermatt, I followed up a sobering stop at the Mountaineer’s Cemetery with welcome whimsy at a fountain in the middle of town where playful bronze marmots frolicked in an enchanting manner. Equally enchanted, I purchased a stuffed, accordion-playing marmot with a wee red hat at a Zermatt souvenir shop. It plays a jaunty tune when you press one of its paws. Not surprisingly, surplus marmots have plagued the town, requiring them to be trapped and resettled or shot, much to the sadness of tourists, whose selfies of their time in Zermatt usually include a marmot posing in the background.

In fact, there is an animal park devoted to the little devils called Marmottes Paradis in Montreux, Switzerland, where inhabitants chucker away before crowds of marmot enthusiasts. Tripadvisor gives it a 3.5/5 and not all tourists are impressed with this slice of marmot heaven. One reviewer writes, a bit cryptically, “Chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, poor marmots.” He did, however, enjoy the cog railway and called the nearby botanical garden “a treat.”

The All-Purpose Marmot  

With all the adoration, it’s hard to believe the alpine marmot regularly has been “harvested” for its fat. In the book Our Little Swiss Cousin, by Mary Hazelton Wade, circa 1903, Carl’s mother worries that he has the whooping cough, which can be cured with marmot fat. Carl’s rugged, mountain-climbing uncle Fritz shows up, offering the boy a dose from his satchel. Uncle Fritz, who’s “killed quite a number,” goes on to describe his method of dispensing with the “shy little creature,” which involves a whistle and a rock and a bag.

For many cultures, the marmot has provided clothing and food for centuries. The indigenous people of the Northwest once measured their wealth in marmot skins, which were sewn together to make robes, blankets and other coverings. In Mongolia, where the average family harvests 105 marmots a season, the critter is an all-purpose resource. The outer fur is used to treat rashes, and marmot fat is used to heal wounds, burns and frostbite. It is also believed marmot fat assuages the symptoms of rheumatism. In addition, the marmot is a reliable source of protein, which reminds me somewhat of Peru, where they eat guinea pigs on purpose.

While Mongolians cook the Tarbagan marmot by inserting hot rocks into its stomach cavity, I have noticed various recipes here in the US, including Whistle Pig Stew, a concoction of bacon, buttermilk, veggies and beer, the final ingredient indicating an enjoyable enterprise. 

Marmot-eating has its caveats, however. In 2019, a couple in Mongolia died from the plague, a flea-borne, bacterial disease, after consuming raw marmot meat and kidney as a folk remedy, an especially salient fact during this time of COVID-19.

There was a time I thought a marmot was simply the name of an outdoor clothing line and a nasty, rat-like demon that destroyed camping gear while I tromped off through the mountains. (I also thought Switzerland was all about Heidi, girl of the Alps; chocolate—the average Swiss consumes 23 pounds a year; and the fact that women there couldn’t vote until 1971.) 

Today, every time I push the paw of my plush, stuffed marmot to hear a jolly accordion tune, I think, “Aww, so cute.” Likewise, every time I’m sitting at my campsite and spy a marmot peering at me from the far side of my backpack, just a paw’s length from my bag of gorp, instead of saying, “F– off, you hairy beast!” I toss a small pebble and shout in a merry tone, “Off with you, you silly little scoundrel!”

Photo: David Anderson