Director’s Letter July 2022

Marmot on a chair by Jimmy Lee

Stuck on marmots

In a classic film Bill Murray’s character repeatedly wakes on February 2, Groundhog Day, doomed to live the day over and over. Stuck in an endless loop, he initially wreaks havoc, with each dawn erasing his bad behavior. Ultimately he breaks the cycle that a Buddhist might call samsara by embracing his better self.

It is fitting that on the 15th anniversary of the movie Groundhog Day, Sony Pictures issued a release, in Blu-ray no less, that includes a short documentary on RMBL marmot research. Groundhogs are Marmota monax, which makes them the phylogenetic cousin of Marmota flaviventris, the yellow-bellied marmot, well-known denizen of Gothic, CO. Started by Dr. Ken Armitage (Univ. of Kansas) and currently continued by Dr. Dan Blumstein (UCLA), for over 60 years each spring the marmoteers start anew, trapping, dyeing, tagging, and measuring a fresh batch of marmots; collectively they are approaching 5000 marmots served.

This annual cycle of mark-recapture has served as the backbone of incredibly productive research, with 150+ scientific publications. Many of our genes and fundamental physiological processes are shared across all mammals, so while marmots are an imperfect stand-in for humans and other animals, our ability to make detailed measurements across decades, combined with behavioral observations that would be inappropriate with humans, makes it possible to generate useful insights we cannot otherwise obtain. As a study system, the RMBL marmots have generated insights into topics such as aging, sociality, climate change, chemicals in the environment, and disease.

Karole Armitage, daughter of Ken and Katie and subject of the accompanying profile, spent summers growing up in Gothic, sharing her father with an annual cycle of marmot observation and measurement. Her story makes clear why RMBL’s commitment to supporting families is not just the right thing to do but is woven into RMBL’s scientific identity. By supporting scientists as people, including their roles as wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, friends and community members, RMBL makes possible a commitment by scientists such as Ken and Dan that goes well beyond a career, but is woven into lives.

Meditating on marmots, I am struck by the value of constraints to creativity. In architecture, accepting the underlying structure of an old building can force a creative design that would not emerge from a blank state. Stuck in a small town on Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character focuses his creative energies on himself, finding contentment.

The commitment of scientists and their families to an annual cycle of returning to Gothic is remarkable. We live in a society that makes it easy to be unstuck. Many change jobs, communities, and even families, at the drop of the hat. Even in science, five years of funding is considered long-term and there can be an emphasis on the next, bright shiny idea. But in accepting the constraints of place, the valleys, mountain peaks, and rivers around Gothic, scientists have generated an outpouring of scientific creativity that transcends time, discipline, and place.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL