Encounter: The Himalayan Marmot

Ladakh's bleak and bare landscape springs to joyous life when these oversized ground squirrels come out to play
Marmot pups engage in some well-earned rough and tumble

As we headed out from Tso Moriri towards the sulphur springs of Puga it was a rendezvous with the Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), or the Tibetan Sarus as the Indian Army men call it, that we were praying for. The landscape was typical Ladakh – bare mountains in soft pastel hues, moist grassy meadows (each with its own spring) and the bluest sky we had ever seen in India. Passing along a rocky meadow beside the road, we spied a hint of movement in the grass and instantly knew what it was. 
Inevitably, push comes to shove

Himalayan Marmots (Marmota himalayanaare both common and plentiful here and we had just sighted a playful family of four pups fattened for the oncoming freeze and the ensuing hibernation. The excess fat did not dent their playfulness, though. We watched as they chased each other in and out of the burrows, across the meadows. They gently sparred and remonstrated, giving us fleeting glances once in a while. Soon enough the mother arrived and for a moment all play ceased as the pups fell over each other as they made for her breasts. Sparring resumed as soon as she left. The marmots' delightful presence added a touch of welcome warmth to this terrain often described as harsh and barren.
Often, things can get just a little bit disagreeable...
Himalayan Marmots are the largest members of the squirrel family and since they are found between 4,000 – 5,000 m (13,100 - 16,400 ft), perhaps the highest dwelling as well. Their body length is close to 60 cm and with the 15 cm tail they are just under a metre long. They live in grassy meadows, steppes and lush edges of rock-strewn slopes in Ladakh, Tibet (where they are called Tibetan Snow Pig) and all the way to Central Asia. They dig burrows and live in close family groups of 10-15 members. Unlike many other rodent species they do not hoard food supplies but burn up body fat while they hibernate.
And fair-play rules may be broken
In his book Birds and Mammals of Ladakh, Otto Pfister describes the marmot burrow, which “…has 2-3 entrances and is used for several decades. It is 20-100 cm long and descends 4-6 m into the ground, ending in large chambers. Nearby, some smaller, shallower shelter burrows are dug to serve as a hiding place in case of danger.”
But along comes Mama
The upper limit of the marmots' habitat corresponds with the edge of the vegetated zone. They have therefore adapted to a diet of grasses and herbs which are readily available in the high-altitude meadows and grasslands. This adaptation for high-altitude living results in their gaining peak weight in October (approx 8-10 kg), just before winter hibernation, during which they can lose up to half of their body weight and their body temperature drops to as low as 5 degrees Celsius. They hibernate for 6-7 months and emerge in the spring after the snow has melted.
And they are one big happy family again
Marmots constitute an important prey species of carnivores such as the Wolf, Lynx, Red Fox, Wild Dog, Snow Leopard and raptors, especially eagles. They are also eaten by the steppe people in Central Asia and were formerly hunted in Ladakh as well (a practice that has declined in recent times).

In his book The Birds of Heaven – Travels with Cranes, Peter Matthiessen, while looking out for the Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo) on the Daurian Steppe in Mongolia, recalls an incident that undescores the importance of marmots both as a prey species and as possible carriers of plague. 

Matthiessen writes: “Steppe marmots stand upright at their burrows like huge prairie dogs, and a sick one lies beside the track, its fur – gold and ivory in the morning sun – rising and falling with each failing breath. The Mongolians wave me away from it, honking their horns and shouting in great agitation; they indicate that a sick marmot, broadcasting bacilli on its breath, can transmit a deadly pneumonic plague to the human beings.

A steppe fox whisks through the blowing grass, a steppe eagle stoops on a young marmot. The eagle glares on the oncoming vehicles as it tears away red shining threads. Nearly, then, it eviscerates the rodent, leaving the heavy guts behind as it takes wing, dragging the rest away over the grass tips.”
Endangered Black-necked Cranes (Grus nigricollis) in Ladakh

Text and photos by Sahastrarashmi
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