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Whistlepigs and Reflections

Do Yellow-Bellied Marmots, aka Whistlepigs, admire the beautiful cloud reflections in the High Sierra lakes as much as I do? And I will show you why they have that funny name.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Middle Gaylor Lake

Well, I don’t know the answer to that question but I needed a tie in for this week’s blog so there you go! While I was recently exploring the area above Saddlebag Lake with Fannie the Corgi, I noticed that animals such as Marmot and Pika reacted to her differently than when I hiked with Sally the Weimaraner. And that got me wondering . . .

Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Olmsted Point

Fannie is mostly on leash or close by me. She doesn’t have any desire to chase after critters and that is one reason why I thought a Corgi would be a good hiking buddy. If Sally had her way, she would be chasing after most everything. So why do Pika and Marmots alert so much when Fannie is nearby?

As Fannie and I rounded the north side of Lake Helen (10,102′ elevation) in the 20 Lakes Basin, I heard a sound like a single loud bark and stopped, trying to pinpoint it but I couldn’t and it barked again. The sound was coming in the big rocks above the trail somewhere. I figured that whatever it was, probably a marmot, didn’t want us there and we moved on. I have heard them whistle, chirp and make a sort of chortling sounds, but not bark. When I got home I did a little research.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Along the Trail to Mount Dana

First off, a little information about the Yellow-Bellied Marmot. Some people know it as a Rock Chuck and did you know that there are 14 species of marmots? They belong to the squirrel family and are usually found above 6,500′ elevation, like to live in burrow, many times under rocks, in colonies of up to twenty with a single dominate male and are diurnal. They are mainly brown, with a dark bushy tail, yellow chest and white patch between the eyes, and they weigh up to approximately 11 pounds. They food consists of plant material, insects, and bird eggs. They gain their fat reserves in autumn in preparation for their hibernation for approximately eight months starting in September and lasting through the winter.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Along the Trail to Mount Dana

I was wondering why the marmots perceive short-legged Fannie as more of a threat than long, tall Sally the Weimaraner. What were the enemies of the Yellow-Bellied Marmots that live in the Tioga Pass area? Well, I learned that their main predators are coyote, badger, eagles, bears, martens, long-tailed weasel and fox. Maybe Fannie looked like a giant weasel or fox to them? From Sounds and Communications of the Yellow-Bellied Marmot by George H. Waring:

When Marmots detect a predator, they have several ways that they communicate this with their calls. Yellow-bellied marmots older than 1 month of age and of either sex can produce at least three main types of sounds—‘whistles’, ‘screams’, and ‘tooth chatter’. 

Some sounds may be used for more than one purpose, and purposes, such as giving alarm, are communicated by more than one means. Furthermore, any sound given within a ‘coterie’ is not repeated by any other member of that social group. Interspecies communication between marmots and the animals around them seems to exist.

Auditory, visual, tactile, and olfactory stimulations are used by marmots for communicating. Most communicating situations involve some form of visual stimulation, such as tail positions.

And this is why they are called Whistlepigs! As Fannie and I rounded Steelhead Lake (10,279′ elevation), we spotted this marmot giving its whistle call to his buddies.


Thought I would leave you with a short video taken while camping up at Saddlebag Lake. Maybe it will help cool you off in the hot summer. And maybe you will be pondering whether a Marmot was out gazing on a nearby lake on this same morning, taking in those clouds reflecting in the calm waters.


Yellow Belied Marmot Wikipedia

The Yellowed-Bellied Marmots: A Marmot’s LIfe

Sounds and communications of the yellow-bellied marmot

Alarm calling in yellow-bellied marmots: I. The meaning of situationally variable alarm calls

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