Marmota himalayanaHimalayan marmot

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Geographic Range

Himalayan marmots (Marmota himalayan) are 1 of 14 Marmota species alive today. While members of the genus Marmota occur across portions of Asia, Europe, and North America, Himalayan marmots are restricted to high elevation regions of northwestern south Asia and China. In Asia, Himalayan marmots occur across the Himalayan Mountains of India, Nepal, and Pakistan. In China, they are found in several provinces, primarily across the Tibetan Plateau in western, central, and southern portions of the country. (Molur and Shreshtha, 2008; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

Habitat

Himalayan marmots are found most often between timberline and snowline, at elevations of 3,500 to 5,200 m. Temperatures in these areas typically range from 8 C to 12 C. Himalayan marmots occur primarily in dry, open habitats, including alpine meadows, grasslands, and deserts. Much of their habitat falls within the Northwestern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows ecoregion. Vegetation in this ecoregion is dominated by stunted evergreen shrubs and birch-dominated forest patches. At higher elevations, this shrub-dominated community shifts to open alpine meadows. This ecoregion is largely protected due to the presence of critically endangered snow leopards. Like other marmots, Himalayan marmots dig large burrows, which generally restricts them to areas with light-textured and adequately deep soil. The burrows of Himalayan marmots are exceptionally deep, typically ranging from 2.0 to 3.5 m. In preparation for hibernation, Himalayan marmots dig burrows that are considerably deeper, sometimes reaching depths of 10 m. These burrows are shared by all members of the colony during hibernation. (Jin-hui, et al., 2009; Molur and Shreshtha, 2008; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

  • Range elevation
    2500 to 5200 m
    8202.10 to 17060.37 ft

Physical Description

Members of the genus Marmota are generally referred to as large ground squirrels. Marmots are large terrestrial rodents with stout limbs and short tails. Himalayan marmots are similar in size to an average house cat. They are generally larger than other marmot species across their native range. Himalayan marmots are particularly stout-bodied and range in length from 475 to 670 mm. They have relatively large skulls, ranging from 96 to 114 mm in length, and exceptionally large hind feet, which range in length from 76 to 100 mm. Like other marmots, each forefoot has four-toes with long concave claws for burrowing, and each hind foot has five toes. Despite their large body size, Himalayan marmots have shorter tails than many other marmot species. Their tail length ranges from 125 to 150 mm, comparable to that of gray marmots. Their ears, ranging from 23 to 30 mm in length, are also relatively short compared to other marmot species. Dorsal pelage ranges from yellow to brown, and they often have irregular black or blackish brown spots, particularly on the face and snout. Ventral pelage is buff yellow to russet. Two subspecies of Himalayan marmots have been described: M. himalayana himalayana and M. himalayana robusta. Marmota himalayana robusta is especially large, with individuals reported to weigh over 6 kg. In general, Himalayan marmots range in mass from 4 to 9.2 kg. Sexual dimorphism has not been reported in this species. (Barash, 1989; Hoffmann and Smith, 2008; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    4 to 9.2 kg
    8.81 to 20.26 lb
  • Range length
    475 to 670 mm
    18.70 to 26.38 in

Reproduction

Most marmot species are cooperative breeders, and many species live in family groups consisting of a reproductive territorial pair, subordinate adults, yearlings and young. Although most marmots are monogamous, in some species, females have multiple mates. Special care is provided during hibernation, when other adults aid in social thermoregulation of the young. This may be a form of alloparental care, whereby unrelated adults aid in care of the offspring. (Armitage, 1999; Barash, 1989; Blumstein and Armitage, 1999; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

All species of marmots (Marmota spp.) reach reproductive maturity by the age of two. However, reproduction typically is delayed another year or more. When marmots reproduce early in the year, it is more physically stressful. Because female marmots do not gain body mass during lactation (and may lose body mass), early reproduction represents a risk, as these individuals must rely on favorable future food availability and weather conditions to sustain their reproductive effort. Reproductive females gain mass at least three weeks later than barren females, but this time period typically is adequate to restore body mass similar to that of barren females. The inability of pregnant females to maximize fattening may lead to reproductive skipping (failure to wean their young). This occurs in most marmot species. (Armitage, 1999; Barash, 1989; Blumstein and Armitage, 1999; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

Annual mating in Himalayan marmots occurs during February and March, and gestation lasts up to one month. Like most marmots, Himalayan marmots give birth in late spring and early summer. This coincides with the end or near end of hibernation. Himalayan marmots typically produce 2 to 11 offspring per litter. Variation in litter size often reflects overall population density. When population density is high, females yield an average of 4.8 offspring per litter. In less dense populations, females average 7 pups per litter. After parturition, offspring are weaned over a 15 day period. Once offspring are independent, juveniles maintain permanent residences in their familial communities, which is typical of most marmot species. (Burton and Burton, 2002; Hoffmann and Smith, 2008)

  • Breeding interval
    Himalayan marmots mate once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding in Himalayan marmots typically occurs during February and March.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 11
  • Average number of offspring
    6
  • Average gestation period
    1 months
  • Average weaning age
    15 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Most marmots provide considerable care to their offspring. In many species, such as Olympic marmots, offspring remain in the burrow for at least one month after birth. In Himalayan marmots, milk is provided to the young during the first 15 days of life. Most marmots receive nearly constant care from the mother, both while in the burrow and for several weeks after emerging. After several weeks, offspring of most species are capable of foraging independently. Blumstein and Armitage (1999) discuss similarities and differences in cooperative breeding and alloparental care across marmot species but note that little is known about this aspect of Himalayan marmot reproduction. (Blumstein and Armitage, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

Lifespan/Longevity

Himalayan marmots have an average lifespan of 15 years in the wild. They are rarely held in captivity and thus, there is no information available concerning the average lifespan of individuals under these conditions. Typical lifespans for Marmota species ranges from 12 to 17 years. (Burton and Burton, 2002; de Magalhaes, et al., 2009)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 (high) years

Behavior

Like all marmots, Himalayan marmots are diurnal, with activity peaking during morning and late afternoon. All marmots are social, living in colonies of up to 30 individuals. In Himalayan marmots, colony size is largely dependent on resource availability. A visible social interaction among marmots is their greeting, a behavior common to many rodents. This greeting occurs after a period of separation, such as when individuals emerge from their burrows in the morning or afternoon. The greeting consists of a nose-to-nose or nose-to-mouth interaction, but can progress into a nose-to-cheek exchange. Marmots are also known to "play fight". Although these interactions appear aggressive, they typically are not, and the length of play fights varies with age and sex. Mock fights among female marmots and yearlings are typically of longer duration than those among adult males and infants. (Armitage, 1999; Barash, 1989; Hoffmann and Smith, 2008; Nikol’skii, 2007; Sun, et al., 1989)

Himalayan marmots exhibit seasonal variation in behavior. They hibernate for extended periods, typically for 6 to 8 months during the coldest times of the year. They are active in spring, summer, and early autumn. Adult females and yearlings spend more time inside their burrows during late spring and early summer. Adult males spend more time outside their burrows, being alert and presumably scanning for potential predators, until August. By mid- to late-August, both sexes spend increased amounts of time in their burrows. (Armitage, 1999; Barash, 1989; Hoffmann and Smith, 2008; Nikol’skii, 2007; Sun, et al., 1989)

Home Range

There is no information available regarding the average home range size of Himalayan marmots.

Communication and Perception

Marmots have strong tactile senses, well-developed for burrowing. Quick reflexes also allow marmots to respond rapidly to their wide range of environmental influences and social interactions. Marmots are highly alert and rely heavily on visual and auditory senses to alert them to potential predators. Per-capita time spent scanning decreases as colony size increases. For example, Olympic marmots tend to spend less time watching for predators, since they commonly forage in groups. In contrast, individuals that forage alone continually pause, scanning the surrounding environment for predators. In comparison to marmots feeding in groups, individuals spend nearly twice the amount of time watching for predators. Distance from their home burrow also affects alertness. For example, yellow-bellied marmots in close range of their burrows, tend to be less vigilant in scanning their surroundings than those foraging at greater distances. (Barash, 1989; Thorington Jr. and Ferrell, 2006; Wolff and Sherman, 2007)

Himalayan marmots often communicate by whistling or chirping, and using physical behaviors. When a predator is detected, they produce a series of alarm calls, which have been observed in many marmot species. It is unclear if there is a distinct vocalization associated with mating. In some species, such as woodchucks, males attract reproductive females using pheromones. Certain physical interactions, such as nestling and nibbling, indicate an individual is ready and willing mate. Because of their burrowing tendencies, Himalayan marmots are difficult to observe in their natural habitat. As a result, few detailed studies of their mating behavior have been conducted. (Barash, 1989; Thorington Jr. and Ferrell, 2006; Wolff and Sherman, 2007)

Food Habits

Himalayan marmots (M. himalayana) are herbivores. Old plant growth is commonly avoided due to the presence of alkaloids, which emit a bitter, metallic taste. Most marmots prefer flowering plants because they are more palatable, and select forage containing higher amounts of protein, fatty acids and minerals. Plant selection differs throughout the year since certain flora species are only available seasonally. Himalayan marmots are sometimes sympatric with livestock (e.g., domesticated yaks) and feed in the same pastures. (Armitage, 2003; Barash, 1989; Burton and Burton, 2002; Nikol'skii and Ulak, 2006; Sun, et al., 1989)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

Predation

Predators of Himalayan marmots include snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, and large birds of prey like bearded vultures and golden eagles. Himalayan marmots are important prey for snow leopards, and evidence suggests that they make nearly 20% of the snow leopard diet. Brown bears may also prey on Himalayan marmots. (Aichun, et al., 2006; Nikol'skii and Formozov, 2005; Oli, et al., 1993)

Marmots are typically on watch for predators while out of their burrows. Distance from burrow and colony size are correlated with per-capita time spent scanning, as greater distances and smaller colonies results in more time spent scanning. When Himalayan marmots sense a predator approaching, they use a distinct series of calls to alert other members of their group. These alarm calls consist of rapidly repeating sounds, beginning with a low frequency call. Each call typically lasts less than 80 milliseconds. A single series of calls continues for less than 1 second. Alarm calls are repeated usually every 5 to 20 seconds. Alarm calls in Himalayan marmots can be distinguished from those produced by other marmots, as the first and second sounds in each series occur in much more rapid succession. (Aichun, et al., 2006; Nikol'skii and Formozov, 2005; Oli, et al., 1993)

Ecosystem Roles

Himalayan marmots are important prey for snow leopards, which are classified as endangered on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. They are also important prey for a number of other predatory mammals and birds. As burrowing animals, they likely help increased soil aeration and water penetration throughout their geographic range. In addition, abandoned borrows likely serve as habitat for numerous other species of small mammals. There is no information available regarding parasites specific to this species. (Aichun, et al., 2006; Oli, et al., 1993)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Historically, the flesh of Himalayan marmots reportedly was used in traditional Tibetan medicine, for treatment of renal disease. (Sun, et al., 1989)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Himalayan marmots on humans.

Conservation Status

Although current population trends are unknown, Himalayan marmots are classified as a species of least concern on the IUCN's Red List of THreatened Species. They are locally abundant throughout their geographic range and show no signs of decline. This species occurs in habitats protected for snow leopards, which is classified as endangered by the IUCN. As a result, they are relatively unaffected by human impacts throughout much of their range. (Molur and Shreshtha, 2008)

Contributors

Lacey Padgett (author), Radford University, Christine Small (author, editor), Radford University, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

Glossary

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
drug

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

fossorial

Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.

frugivore

an animal that mainly eats fruit

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polyandrous

Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

tundra

A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

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Armitage, K. 1986. Marmot polygyny revisited: determinants of male and female reproductive strategies. Ecological Aspects of Social Evolution, 1: 303-331.

Armitage, K. 1982. Marmots and coyotes: behavior of prey and predator. Journal of Mammalogy, 63: 503-505.

Armitage, K. 2003. Observations on plant choice by foraging Yellow-Bellied Marmots. Oecologia Montana, 12: 25-28. Accessed March 27, 2011 at http://www.eeb.ucla.edu/Faculty/Blumstein/MarmotsOfRMBL/pdfs/Armitage_2003_OecolMont_PlantChoice.pdf.

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Hoffmann, R., A. Smith. 2008. Family Sciuridae. Pp. 172-195 in A Smith, Y Xie, eds. A Guide to the Mammals of China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Lu, Y., B. Wang, H. Huang, Y. Tian, J. Bao, J. Dong, M. Roggendorf, M. Lu, D. Yang. 2008. The interferon-a gene family of Marmota himalayana, a Chinese marmot species with susceptibility to woodchuck hepatitis virus infection. Developmental and Comparative Immunology, 32/4: 445-457.

Mishra, C., A. Datta, M. Datta. 2006. Mammals of the high altitudes of western Arunachal Pradesh, eastern Himalaya: an assessment of threats and conservation needs. Cambridge Journals, 40/1: 29-35.

Molur, S., T. Shreshtha. 2008. "Marmota himalayana" (On-line). IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. Accessed September 15, 2010 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/12826/0.

Nikol'skii, A., A. Ulak. 2006. Key factors determining the ecological niche of the Himalayan marmot, Marmota himalayana (1841). Russian Journal of Ecology, 37/1: 46-52.

Nikol'skii, A., N. Formozov. 2005. The alarm call of Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana, Rodentia, Sciuridae). Zoologičeskij žurnal, 84/12: 1497-1507.

Nikol’skii, A. 2007. The influence of amplitude modulation on the structure of call spectrum in marmots (Marmota, Rodentia, Sciuridae). Izvestiya Akademii Nauk, 34/4: 428–436.

Oli, M., I. Taylor, M. Rogers. 1993. Diet of the snow leopard (Pantheva uncia) in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. Journal of Zoology, 231/1: 365-370.

Polly, D. 2003. Paleophlogeography: the tempo of geographic differentiation in marmots (Marmota). Journal of Mammalogy, 84/2: 369-384.

Sun, S., G. Sui, Y. Liu, X. Cheng, I. Anand, P. Harris, D. Heath. 1989. The pulmonary circulation of the Tibetan snow pig (Marmota himalayana). Journal of Zoology, 217/1: 89-90.

Thorington Jr., R., K. Ferrell. 2006. Squirrel Behavior. Pp. 62-95 in V Burke, ed. Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University press.

Wolff, J., P. Sherman. 2007. Rodent societies: an ecological and evolutionary perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zimina, R., I. Gerasimov. 1973. The periglacial expansion of marmots (Marmota) in middle Europe during late pleistocene. Journal of Mammalogy, 54/2: 327-340.

de Magalhaes, J., A. Budovsky, G. Lehmann, J. Costa, Y. Li, V. Fraifeld,, G. Church. 2009. "The Human Ageing Genomic Resources: online databases and tools for biogerontologists" (On-line). Aging Cell. Accessed March 23, 2011 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/query.php?search=marmot.