In the den of marmots

These cute creatures that look harmless go about their lives in the open, but one needs to be wary of their enormous sickle-like incisors

Published - November 13, 2021 04:42 pm IST

A marmot on a meadow in Ladakh. Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

A marmot on a meadow in Ladakh. Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Nandini Rajamani was on the look out for an animal that was active during the day and lived in a group, preferably on the ground. She found just the candidate in the Himalayan marmot of Ladakh.

The researcher had previously studied flying squirrels in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats (‘Vanishing wizards of the night’ May 10, 2020). All she got for staying awake for many nights and gazing at the treetops were mere glimpses of these solitary and nocturnal animals. Observing these shy creatures for any length of time seemed impractical.

In the mountains, however, marmots went about their lives out in the open. The house cat-sized adults settled scores with their rivals, courted their mates, and nibbled on grass stems and seeds, while keeping an eye out for predators. The pups had all the time to roughhouse in the sun. In areas frequented by tourists, they combed through trash, shoving their heads into tin cans and plastic bags. The researcher and her team merely plonked themselves at a distance to observe the nonstop entertainment.

If one ventured too close to Rajamani, the mothers charged as if she had made a wrong move. But the adventurous males sometimes walked right up to her. Wary of the tubby animals’ enormous sickle-like incisors, she inched away from them.

Although these marmots looked cute and harmless, Rajamani had heard a story that made her resolve to keep them at arm’s length. The human residents struggle to grow a crop of barley during the short growing season, but these rodents make their job harder by helping themselves to the ripening grain.

An encounter

A farmer tied his dog beside a marmot den, hoping its presence would encourage the animals to relocate elsewhere. He misjudged them.

Marmot lives centre around their burrows. They don’t migrate downhill to beat the winter, opting to hunker 10 metres below the frozen ground for as many as six to eight months. Every generation inherits the burrow from the previous one. It takes much more than a tethered dog to force such homebodies to vacate their burrows.

When the farmer returned some hours later, he found his pet decapitated by the rodents.

It’s no surprise these marmots are feisty. Every large predator, from wolves to snow leopards and lammergeiers, eyes them for dinner.

Studying marmots with their adorable looks and busy social lives on the spectacular Ladakhi landscape wasn’t as easy as it sounds. In the high altitude plateau, thin air made fieldwork difficult for the researcher from the plains of South India.

“The higher you go, the tougher it gets,” she says.

Working in the mountains taxed her mental strength and tested her physical stamina. Even walking felt strenuous. Although the Himalayan marmots live at lower elevations, they were more visible between 3,500 and 5,500 metres, altitudes at which the researcher and her team didn’t want to spend the night.

In distress

“Symptoms [of altitude sickness] descend with little warning,” says Rajamani. “There are stories of people who don’t wake up.”

The daily travel up and down the mountains took its toll, too. Since she began the project in 2017, every year at least one person in her team had to be hooked on oxygen support.

Despite these life-threatening difficulties, the researcher and her team hope observing marmot behaviour would reveal how they cope with climate change. Almost 20% of the Himalayan glaciers have melted. As the planet warms and winters shorten, the rodents may spend more time above ground. If grasses don’t get enough meltwater, they may not have enough forage, which could lead to shorter lifespans and fewer numbers. Predators may feel the pinch when their meat source becomes scarce.

Rajamani has to spend many more years to see these effects play out. At least she escapes the bone-freezing Ladakhi winter by decamping to the plains.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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