Field Science Challenge #3 Marmot Mania

You may have heard their high-pitched whistle when they sound the alarm as you walk by their burrows. Or maybe you have seen them sunbathing on high alpine rocks or boxing and wrestling with one another in a lush, green mountain meadow. Yellow bellied marmots are charismatic creatures that are fun to watch, and fascinating to research. Just ask Dr. Dan Blumstein; he has been following these large, hibernating ground squirrels around for decades, along with the help of hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students fondly known around RMBL as “Marmoteers”.

Many generations of marmots have been studied in Gothic. To study these animals, scientists live trap marmots and mark them with a name tag of black fur dye each season to be able to identify each marmot from a distance and keep track of them year after year. In the Gothic townsite, many marmots are known by their names from their fur marks and the stories of their behavior (like the story of when Stitches, one of the marmot moms, chased a fox away from her babies!).

This year, we can’t bring you into the Gothic townsite to show you how we trap and study the local marmots, but we have an idea for how you might be able to study some of the small mammals that live in your neighborhood. You can’t live trap animals for research without a permit, but you can collect information about them through a field survey tool which is often used by scientists and can be made from materials you have at home – tracking plates. Tracking plates are a method to capture footprints of animals that walk on the plates such as mice, gophers, voles, ground squirrels, porcupines, marmots and more!

Recorded Lab Chat with Dr. Dan Blumstein

What We’d Like to Find Out: What types of small mammals are moving through the area where you live?  Which bait is most effective at attracting which animals?  Which animals show up in different habitats?

What To Do:

  1. Choose which question you’d like to answer. If you are just curious to see if you find any footprints on your tracking plate, you can just build one and try it out. But, if you want to know if you see more footprints in one habitat vs. another; OR, if you want to see which type of bait attracts different animals, then you will need to build multiple tracking plates.
  2. Create the base of your tracking plate by cutting out a piece of cardboard and covering the top with smooth aluminum foil. Tape the foil on the bottom to secure it in place.
  3. Create the surface of your tracking plate by rubbing a layer of oil across the aluminum foil. Then, dust your baby powder (or carpenter’s chalk) lightly across the surface of the oil to form a thin layer.
  4. To place the tracking plate, position the cardboard flat on the ground with the powdered-oiled aluminum surface facing up to the sky. In the middle of the plate, place your bait. This will attract animals to walk on the plate surface in order to get the bait, and then their tracks will be left behind in the powder.
  5. Decide where to place your tracking plate(s) according to your question. If you want to compare tracking results across different habitats, place multiple track plates in each type of habitat (eg place some under the trees/shade, place some in the grass/open sun, and place some in an area with moisture need a stream or pond). If you want to compare how many footprints and the types of tracks that appear depending on the type of bait, choose a few areas to place the multiple tracking plates, and then in each of these areas have different tracking plates for each of the different kinds of bait you’d like to compare.
  6. Place your tacking plate(s) in the evening before sunset, and go to check the plate after the sun comes up in the morning to see if you see any footprints. If you do see footprints, take a picture or draw what you see and use a tracking guidebook or website to try to identify the footprints.
  7. Try it again the next night! Wipe the aluminum clean and resurface it with oil and powder to put fresh plates out each night for a week and see how many different types of tracks you get. Also, see if there are ways you can make your plate more effective by trouble shooting any problems that arise with your set up. Sometimes too much powder can cause prints to be smeared and hard to see or wind might blow the plate or a larger animal might steal the bait. It’s up to you do design a solution in each of the scenarios you encounter.

Please Remember (Research Rules & Ethics): It is illegal to feed wildlfe. Do not make it a regular habit of feeding or attracting animals to your home. Animals need to remain wild and be able to find food on their own. This track plate activity is a temporary experiment for you to learn about animals in your neighborhood. Also, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water after handling tracking plates that have been used by small animals (because animals can carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans).

What Happened? Tell Us About It!  Email your pictures of footprints on your plate(s).  Explain where you placed your plate(s) and which animal prints you think you see on it. And, tell us if you want some help with identifying the footprints.

So What? Next Steps:  If you like tracking plates, you might enjoy using wildlife cameras. These are motion sensor cameras that you can attach in a variety of locations (eg like on a tree or on the post of your deck) that will take pictures of animals that move past the camera. You might be surprised at who you see!  Both wildlife and bird researchers at RMBL use wildlife cameras as tools to collect data for their research projects.