Mining for marmots

Taylor Bastian is a PhD student at University of California Los Angeles and part of Dr. Dan Blumstein’s lab. Last year, she spent her first summer at RMBL working on the marmot project. We caught up with Taylor as she was heading to RMBL for her second summer. What led her to RMBL was a search for a graduate program and learning about Dr. Blumstein’s research with marmots. He’s a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and runs the marmot project at RMBL.

Marmots are right up Taylor’s alley. She’s interested in studying the environment’s impact on social behaviors, and the marmot project has been studying the behavior of RMBL’s yellow-bellied marmots since 1962. That time span covers a lot of marmots. With 11 colonies to observe, the team saw 216 marmots last year, and there have been many more in previous years.

Science, shmience

Actually, Taylor’s journey to RMBL started years ago with a transformation. She wasn’t born loving science. As a young student, she hated it. But in eighth grade, she had a science teacher whose enthusiasm was so infective that she reconsidered her position. Maybe science wasn’t so bad after all. Then, as an undergraduate she ended up with a professor of animal behavior who made science so entertaining that Taylor was hooked. She’d found her calling.

At RMBL, Taylor’s hoping to find the relationships between different environmental variables — like temperature and the length of winter — and the social behaviors of the animals, such as how many interactions an individual has with others, the number of marmots they interact with, and how well-connected they are within their network. Ultimately, she wants to see how of all these variables — environmental and behavioral — affect each animal’s fitness.

Her dissertation will address three topics: the environmental impacts on social behavior, the effects of sociality on fitness, and a structural equation model that puts all these factors together to see which has the most influence on the consequences.

Catch as catch can

This early in the year, with snow still on the ground in Gothic, it’s too early to catch the critters, so the team’s work will be limited to observing and recording the marmots’ behavior. Each animal wears a sort of nametag, a unique mark that researchers give them to track their individual behaviors. The team watches what they do, where they go, and who they hang out with.

Come June, researchers start baiting traps and catching individuals to weigh, measure, and take blood, fur, and tissue samples to collect genetic and physiological data. Taylor is looking forward to tagging marmot pups this year. The tiny, screaming babies are irresistible study subjects.

The colonies lie in a wide range of elevations, from down Kettle Ponds road to almost as far up valley as Rustler Gulch. Observing the effects of elevation is part of the research. At higher elevations, the snow lasts much longer, the weather is harsher, and the health outcomes are worse. When the animals emerge, it’s important to see who’s still alive and how snowmelt timing affects each colony.

Fat and happy

Marmot hibernation is a marvel. Their bodily systems virtually shut down. As Taylor says, “they are as close to dead as you can get.” When they start to emerge, those who survive the winter are the ones with the highest amount of body fat. Longer warm seasons provide more chances to fatten up, but they also give predators more time to make a meal of the marmots.

Building fat for the winter is especially tricky for breeding moms, who must spend much of their time feeding babies while watching for predators and getting enough nourishment to keep them alive through winter. Males, on the other hand, have an easier time getting chunky.

Notwithstanding the adorableness of baby marmots, Taylor says that of all the aspects of working at RMBL, what she enjoys most is the community of humans. “There are so many wonderful people you can talk to about your research, hear their takes, and learn from,” she says.

Now, she sees her own future in education. She loves teaching and mentoring. She thinks about inspiring other young prospective scientists, especially those in smaller colleges who have fewer opportunities to experience the wonders of scientific research.

Who knows? Maybe someday, she’ll bring students of her own to RMBL to join the hunt for squealing baby marmots.

 

Taylor is a PhD student at UCLA studying the relationships between environment, sociality, and fitness under Dr. Daniel Blumstein. Her love of wildlife and ecology began at Critter Camp as a first grader and continued as she worked with Dungeness crabs at University of Washington and freshwater zooplankton at Gonzaga University. This year will be her second field season with Team Marmot at RMBL.