Marmot researchers raise a toast for Groundhog Day

For most Americans, Groundhog Day is a quaint oddity or a movie starring Bill Murray. For Punxsutawney Phil Sowerby, the Pennsylvania critter who'll be dragged out of his burrow Saturday by men in top hats to look for his shadow, the day must be a supreme annoyance.

But for UCLA biologist Dan Blumstein, today's midwinter observance has become a reason to throw a party in honor of a creature that scientists have studied for decades.

Groundhogs are marmots — and through marmots, scientists hope to gain insight into the social behavior of animals, how they communicate and how their interactions influence the size of their population.

And so on Friday afternoon, Blumstein and a group of 30 or so fellow "marmotophiles" gathered in a spare hallway in the university's Life Sciences building and toasted groundhogs with cans of soda as a jazz mix played in the background.

"This is really the only holiday about animal behavior," Blumstein said.

Cat-sized, sharp-toothed groundhogs have a large range — from the Southeast up into the East Coast and Midwest, across Canada and even as far north as Alaska. Also known as woodchucks, they're the largest of the 14 or 15 marmot species (scientists are still debating the precise number).

Marmots are great animals for scientists to study, Blumstein said, because they're awake during the day and they "have an address," living in burrows that researchers can stake out over time. Blumstein, who has also studied the behavior of kangaroos, wallabies, hermit crabs, sea anemones, lizards, birds and people, has spent more than 13 years observing the colonies of yellow-bellied marmots who live at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Crested Butte, Colo.

During summers in the field, he and colleagues have trapped marmots live using horse chow as bait, tagged them with "earrings," taken samples of their blood, and recorded the size of colonies as they waxed and waned. During winter, Blumstein has held a hibernating marmot in a lab, its body temperature just a couple of degrees above freezing. "It's like a hairy rock," he said.

A groundhog roused from hibernation that appears to be "looking for his shadow" is probably displaying a typical pattern, Blumstein said. Marmots rouse periodically during the winter to urinate, and near the end of the season they start to emerge from their burrows and scope out their territory for potential mates. Males typically wake before females.

Over the years, the scientists' observations have helped them understand how certain behaviors translate into success, or failure, for the colonies. Lately, they've focused on how the higher temperatures brought on by climate change might improve, or hinder, the marmots' reproductive success.

To read the full story by Eryn Brown click here.