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The Groundhog’s Cousin

I thought it only appropriate—since we celebrate Groundhog Day tomorrow (called Marmot Day in Alaska)—to choose a photo of a Hoary Marmot, a near relative of the groundhog, for today’s post. Both the Groundhog (found in lowlands and prairies) and the Hoary Marmot (which resides in mountainous areas of North America from Alaska to western Montana) belong to the Marmot genus, large rodents of the squirrel family. Ground squirrels, they live in below-ground burrows (often beneath rocky ground or talus slopes) and hibernate in the winter. So Punxsutawney Phil can’t be terribly pleased to be suddenly awoken and yanked out of his cozy den on a cold February morning.

I found the young Hoary Marmot, above, on a cool and wet August morning in Glacier National Park. He and his brother scampered all around the alpine meadow above Logan Pass and, unfazed by two-legged visitors, would pose for me on a nearby rock, one minute, then try nibbling on my tripod leg or boot lace, the next.

One of the largest members of the squirrel family, Hoary Marmots live in colonies above the tree line and hibernate for up to eight months of the year. I photographed this youngster (as well as his brother and both adults) at approximately 7,000 feet of elevation. Snow can completely cover this meadow from mid-September to late June, so the herbivores would find nothing above ground to eat. Instead, they hibernate (they’re true hibernators) and live off fat reserves through the long winter.

With a fossil record dating back to the Pleistocene Era, they have inhabited North America far longer than we have—for as many as 2.5 million years—and have survived not only multiple ice ages but also the massive extinction event that claimed up to 52 North American genera (33 herbivorous and 19 carnivorous) towards the end of the Pleistocene.

So don’t be fooled by their adorable looks. The Hoary Marmot is not likely to be scared by a mere shadow. Especially his own.