The Marmot Abides

“One generation passeth, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-9, King James Version)

Like “The Dude”, the marmot abides. “I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.” – The Big Lebowski.

Similar to a rug that ties a room together, the Marmoteers make RMBL complete. Team Marmot (see adjoining article), led by Dr. Dan Blumstein (UCLA,) arrived in mid-April. The marmot soap opera would be incomplete if the team arrived too late as Gothic’s marmots start digging up through the snow in April to mate. The team sojourned from the busy highways of Los Angeles to don snowshoes at the Snodgrass trailhead for the snowy trek to Gothic. This year’s field team is led by UCLA PhD candidate Taylor Bastian, who is interested in how the environment affects social behavior.

One of the most complete and longest running studies of non-game mammals, the research is unique in terms of its longevity as well as its completeness. Started by Dr. Ken Armitage (Univ. of Kansas) in 1962, marmots have been the target of observation for generations of scientists. The project has grown from an original focus on behavior and lifetime reproductive fitness, to encompass physiology, proteins, and genetics. This makes it possible to connect the dots in unparalleled ways, linking behavior to protein levels in the blood, parsing the role of genetics and the environment in controlling behavior.  Dan and his team not only study the behavior of the marmots but link behavioral differences to lifetime reproductive or evolutionary fitness. For example, in encouraging news for introverts everywhere, less social marmots tend to live longer and have fewer offspring.

While marmots and humans differ in many ways, and the differences extend beyond marmots being stubbier and furrier, counterintuitively those differences provide an opportunity to expand our understanding of humans. For example, while you shouldn’t use marmot research to justify not spending time with friends or family, metabolic aging of marmots drops dramatically during hibernation. Understanding the physiological mechanisms associated with this slow-down may help scientists better understand and manage aging in humans. Indeed, if NASA sends astronauts to distant galaxies, Gothic’s marmots may help show the way to slowing aging during space travel.

Lounging on decks in summer, occasionally stirring to munch on dandelions, just as many movie-goers find deeper meaning in the Dude from the movie The Big Lebowski, I see shades of Zen Bhuddism in Gothic’s marmots. I’m not certain how self-aware they are, but having supported hundreds of scientific papers, it’s clear they offer a path to self-knowledge.

We can all take comfort in how the marmot abides!

To learn more, including what marmots tell us about humans and the world, visit Dr. Blumstein’s Marmot Burrow.