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Mogul or Marmot?

By Bob Brett,

Whistler Naturalists

I’ve always loved the story about the tourist who asked where moguls are stored in summer. It doesn’t even matter if the story’s true, it’s just great to picture a big freezer filled with moguls.

Blasting through powder bumps on Shaleslope or Seventh Heaven, it’s easy even for a local to forget moguls are temporary. Or that when the moguls melt away, what’s revealed beneath are subalpine meadows and the perfect habitat for hoary marmots.

Just think: that mogul you’re wildly gyrating over may be the rooftop of a colony of marmots in their burrow metres below. I wonder if they ever stir from hibernation as all the skiers and snowboarders speed past.

Most of the mammals on our local mountains don’t hibernate – a fact most apparent when countless tracks appear under the chairlifts after a few snowless days. Coyotes, cougars, weasels, martens, hares, and other animals all leave their marks. Marmots choose instead to lie winter out under the snow.

Whether or not to hibernate is mainly a question of energy conservation. If a marmot burns more calories than it consumes, it will run a deficit bigger than Glen Clark and Gordon Campbell combined. Food is scarce in winter, so marmots head for their burrows in fall and turn down the furnace. By slowing their metabolism, hibernating marmots reduce their energy requirements to only one-seventh of what would be needed if they remained active.

One key to winter survival for a marmot is the fat reserve laid down during the brief summer months. Hoary marmots double their weight during the four or five months they are active – pretty amazing considering they eat mostly grass and wildflowers and spend most of the day lolling around or in their burrow.

Another survival key is good insulation. The ideal temperature for a marmot is a constant 5 degrees C. Any colder or warmer causes energy consumption to increase and chances of survival to decrease. Snow is an excellent insulator and, as we know, the Coast Mountains supply it by the wet bucketful. All a marmot needs to curl up in its comfy burrow and wait for Ullr to pull up the thick duvet of snow.

As long as they packed on enough fat during the past summer binge to survive (and also avoid diseases and predators) marmots emerge out of the snow in late April or May. It’s something to keep in mind when you’re spring skiing: if your mogul starts moving, please go light on the edges.

Upcoming Events

Saturday, March 2nd — Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m. Contact Michael Thompson (604-932-5010) for details.

Thursday, March 21st — Volcanoes. A Slide Presentation by Jack Souther . Join us at MY Place for the first of our monthly series of speakers, Jack Souther. Jack is a well-known geologist who will talk about volcanoes around B.C. and especially in the Whistler area. Watch this column for more details in coming weeks.

Sightings and Memberships: NatureSpeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To become a member or to report noteworthy sightings of mammals, birds, or other species, contact Lee Edwards (905-6448; e-mail: leighe11@hotmail.com).

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