Their name sounds like an insult hurled by the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, but yellow-bellied marmots otherwise deserve notice for their resilience and attributes.
For instance they are, says Eric A. Rickart, curator of vertebrates at the Utah Museum of Natural History, the largest members of the ground squirrel family and the largest true hibernators.Found throughout Utah where suitable forage is available, from the sagebrush terrain of the northwest corner of the state to the alpine and subalpine regions of the mountains, "they're at the tops of the highest peaks of Utah, like the Uintas, and in the foothills above the University of Utah campus," Rickart says.
Humans get a kick out of the animals in part because they are diurnal - we see them in the daytime. "Most small animals are nocturnal," he notes. Marmots are also sun worshippers, catching the rays atop their preferred sentinel spots, rock piles and outcroppings near their dens. Sharp-eyed and able to see in color, they are quick to alert one another when something or someone (they see humans as potential predators) approaches, employing ear-catching trills, whistles and vocalizations.
In reality, their major predator is the golden eagle, Rickart says.
"They're also interesting from a behavioral standpoint," he adds. Marmots sometimes form colonies, when numbers are of a high enough density, apparently based upon relationships along the female family line.
These kinship groupings aren't quite as strong as those among their relatives, the prairie dogs, for marmot colonies tend to fall apart seasonally, probably because of the long periods of hibernation. "When they come back out, they have to re-establish those bonds," he says.
Yellow-bellied marmots are the best-studied marmot species, notes one of several Web sites about them, (http://falcon.cc.ukans. edu/%7Emarmota/ybelly.html). "Dr. Kenneth B. Armitage and a number of his students have studied a population in Gothic, Colo., since 1962," the site notes. "Yellow-bellied marmots have a `harem-polygynous' social system whereby a male defends and mates with one or more females in a subalpine meadow. Female daughters may not disperse and may settle around their mothers. Sons invariably disperse as yearlings and try to find and defend one or more females."
Another Web site announces "The Fellowship of the Yellow-Bellied Marmot."
They'd better keep an eye out for Yosemite Sam.