Biologist is expert on marmot calls


Mar 11, 2001
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Marmot linguist studies alarm calls

Associated Press


LOS ANGELES (AP) - For the past 15 years, Dan Blumstein has been trying to get inside the heads of marmots.

Blumstein is a professor of animal behavior ecology at the University of California at Los Angeles, a job that asks him to explain why various species act as they do. He's also the world's reigning expert on marmot alarm calls.

Blumstein cites many reasons marmot alarm calls are worth pondering. Perhaps the most important is an overwhelming curiosity about how animals perceive the world. Or, to put it another way, he really wants to know why a woodchuck chucks.

Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are one of 14 species of marmot. Classified as rodents, marmots are close relatives of prairie dogs and ground squirrels and are found in rocky areas throughout the West, including close to Billings homes near the Rimrocks.

Blumstein's first serious encounter with the creatures came on a cycling trip in Asia in 1987, when he came across a colony of long-tailed marmots in the mountains of Pakistan.

When predators such as foxes or golden eagles were present, the marmots would sometimes issue alarm calls and then hide in their burrows until danger passed.

But what were the marmots saying with their whistlelike calls? Were they shrieking in terror? Telling their mortal enemies to get lost? Or screaming "fox" or "eagle" to other marmots?

The question that bothered Blumstein: Why would a marmot risk alerting a predator to its whereabouts by whistling? Why not quietly retreat to a burrow?

Finding answers to those questions has required Blumstein to be inventive. As part of an effort to better replicate natural threats, for example, so he could tape-record marmot whistles, Blumstein built a kite that resembled an eagle. Evil KnEagle, he called it.

Explaining this in one scientific journal, Blumstein and Walter Arnold wrote: "We attempted to launch the kite in such a way as to make it suddenly appear over targeted marmots without the marmots seeing the people flying the kite."

Because the kite was sometimes unwieldy, he constructed RoboBadger, a stuffed badger mounted on the chassis of a radio-controlled car. Maneuvering the car through marmot colonies often provoked calls - and proved science can be a great deal of fun.

Back in his lab, Blumstein used a computer to analyze frequency, tone and length of the chirps, yips, chucks and kee-aws that marmots sounded.

"We didn't have any indication marmots were saying 'eagle' or 'snow leopard' or 'wolf,' " he says. "But they were saying 'I'm scared, I'm more scared, now I'm getting less scared.' So they could communicate in some kind of dynamic way about risk."

Blumstein also spent time studying the social behavior of yellow-bellied marmots with a colleague, Ken Armitage, in the Rocky Mountains near Crested Butte, Colo. Armitage, a University of Kansas biologist, has carefully tracked this marmot colony every summer since 1962, making it one of the longest continuing studies of a mammal population.

"One of the fundamental questions that has emerged from our work is, why do marmots decide to alarm call when they do?" said Armitage. "Because we know they don't always call when there are threats."

There were other strange behaviors. Mothers prevented daughters from reproducing. Infants were killed. Permanent expulsions from the colony were common.

In short, the colony of cute, fuzzy creatures resembled Peyton Place more than Disneyland.

In papers written over the last decade (many with Armitage and other researchers), Blumstein has focused on two key findings:

In yellow-bellied marmots, whistles are often intended to protect offspring. Besides good parenting, the whistles are an individual's way to ensure that their genes dominate future generations. Conversely, getting rid of genetic competition may be the reason marmots do not whistle to a distant relative about to become coyote chow.

"The name of the game is maximizing the number of your genes in future generations," says Blumstein. "Mathematically, it makes perfect sense."

His work also suggests that species of marmots with the most socially complex colonies also have the most elaborate whistles. In other words, the marmots that survive in a complex world may be the ones that can communicate.

Eric Mayer

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Apr 2, 2001
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Do you think he could tell me why Rockchucks suddenly explode after they make a "whap" sound?  hehe...  

Eric A. Mayer

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