The groundhog, celebrated with a special day Feb. 2 in the United States, is one of six marmot species in North America, but unless a team of managers and scientists – including a Colorado State University biologist – are successful, the number of species found on this continent could shrink to five.
Greg Florant, professor of biology at Colorado State and an expert on marmot physiology, is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Team that met in mid-January to discuss the issue. The Vancouver Island marmot, whose range is entirely in Canada, is on the U.S. endangered species list as well as Canada’s.
Scientists count 36 Vancouver Island marmots surviving in the wild with 39 in captivity. To help draw attention to Canada’s most-endangered species, British Columbia in 1998 declared May 1 as "Vancouver Island Marmot Day." The date, Florant said, reminds people that a "Mayday" call has been issued for the species. (The groundhog, also known as a "woodchuck" or "whistling pig," is more common and not threatened.) For the Vancouver Island species, "the ‘problem’ is a host of different things," said Florant, who spent last spring in Austria on a Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship investigating the physiology and hibernation patterns of the Alpine marmot. The precipitous drop in the Vancouver Island marmot’s numbers since about 1980 could be due to disease; nutrition; possible global warming; increased predation from wolves, cougars and golden eagles; and human activities, such as clear-cutting forests.
"Clear cutting initially makes good marmot habitat," said Florant. "However, as vegetation returns, the habitat changes. Hiding places for predators, difficulty in finding suitable places for marmot hibernation, even changes in marmot food plants can reduce the value of the clear cuts and leave the marmot population occupying them with nowhere to go." With an average life expectancy of eight to 10 years, two-year-old males and even some females are kicked out of the large group in which they were raised to find their own territory. It’s possible, Florant said, that they’re drawn to clear cuts, but after a few years the once-inviting areas prove less than ideal in sustaining the little rodents.
Florant is worried about nutritional issues. His previous research shows that leafy plants, seeds and nuts eaten during the warm season contain two fatty acids, linoleic (18:2n-6) and linolenic acid (18:3n-3). They are key molecules for successful marmot hibernation, during which body temperatures drop and metabolism slows.
However, his research shows that larger amounts of linolenic acid can make the animal active and cause it to feed when it’s supposed to be hibernating. Florant hypothesizes linolenic acid levels in American groundhogs, and not their shadows, determine whether they emerge from hibernation early. Excess linolenic acid could also disrupt the hibernation of Vancouver Island marmots. Significantly, some research suggests that most of them die during winter.
A marmot "halfway house" stands atop Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington so that captive marmots can get outside, see predators and prepare for life in the wild.
"Basically, what we’re talking about is getting them breeding in captivity as fast as we can," Florant said. "We’ve got captive breeding now, and I think we can bring the Vancouver Island marmot back. But we have the whole matter of habitat for marmots and other animals, and that’s the larger issue."
Florant received his doctorate from Stanford University in 1978 and bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1973. He taught at Swarthmore College and Temple University before joining Colorado State in 1995. Groundhog Day shares Feb. 2 with an ancient European Christian festival called "Candlemas," which presaged the coming of spring. Farmers decided if a hedgehog emerged from its burrow and saw its shadow there’d be six more weeks of winter. German farmers brought the tradition to the United States. Lacking hedgehogs, they adopted the groundhog.
More information on the Vancouver Island marmot is available on the Web at http://www.marmots.org/.