1902 Encyclopedia > Marmot


MARMOT. The word marmot may be considered to include animals belonging to the three following genera:— the true marmots, forming the genus Arctomys (" bear-mouse "), so called from the thickset, bear-like form of its members ; the prairie marmots of North America, better known as the "prairie dogs" (Cynomys, "dog-mouse"); and the pouched marmots, or sousliks, comprising the genus Spermophilus, or seed-lovers, so named from the character of their food. These three genera are all closely allied to each other, and together form the subfamily Arctomyinas of the great squirrel family, the Sciuridx, of which the only other subfamily, the Sciurinx, consists of the true squirrels (Sciurus) and the flying-squirrels (Ptero-mys). The members of the marmot subfamily are con-fined to the northern hemisphere, and in fact are almost entirely limited to the north temperate zone, in marked contrast to the genera of the subfamily Sciurinse, which attain their greatest development in tropical or semi-tropical countries.

The Arctomyinee agree in the possession of somewhat short, stumpy bodies, comparatively short tails (except in certain sousliks), and long and powerful claws suitable for burrowing. They all have broad, strong, and ungrooved incisors or cutting teeth, two pairs of premolars above and one below, and three pairs of true molars in each jaw. The grinding teeth are all on the whole very similar, the first upper premolar much smaller than the others, and nearly round, the next three teeth triangular in outline, and each with either two or three transverse grooves upon the crown ; the last molar is rather broader and more com-plicated than the others, as is shown in fig. 2. The general form of the skeleton is very similar to that of the true squirrels, but the bones as a rule are stouter and heavier.

1. The following are the generic characters of Arctomys. External form stout and heavy, ears short, tail short and hairy, cheek-pouches rudimentary or absent. Fore feet with four well-developed toes, and a rudimentary thumb provided with a flat nail; skull (see MAMMALIA, p. 417, fig. 92) similar in general form to that of the other genera, but very much larger and heavier, the post-orbital processes stouter, and at right angles to the axis of the skull. In-cisors broad and powerful. First upper premolar nearly as large as the second. Molar series nearly parallel, scarcely converging behind at all.

The various species of marmot, about ten in number, are all much alike in general appearance, ranging in size from about 15 to 25 inches in length, with tails from 3 to 6 inches long. The following are the species now generally recognized, though the Central-Asiatic forms are still very imperfectly known :—

Arctomys marmotta, Linn., southern Europe, the Alps, Pyrenees, and Carpathians; A. bobac, Schreb., eastern Europe and Siberia; A. himalayanus, Hodgs., south-west Tibet; A. Tiemachalanus, Hodgs., Nepal; A. caudatus, Jacquemont, Cashmere; A. dichrous, Anderson, Afghanistan ; A. aureus, Blanford, Turkestan; A. monax, Linn., eastern North America ; A. flaviventer, Aud. and Bach, western United States ; A. pruinosus, Gmeh, north-western North America.

It will thus be seen that one species only is peculiar to Europe, and three to North America, while at least six, and perhaps more, are found in various parts of Central Asia,— one of these, A. bobac, occurring also as far west as Russia and eastern Germany.

FIG. 1.—Alpine Marmot (Arctomys marmotta). After Brehm.

The following account of the habits of the Alpine marmot, A. marmotta, extracted from Professor Blasius's well-known work on the mammals of Germany, applies, with but little variation, to all the members of the genus.

Marmots live high up in the snowy regions of the mountains, generally preferring exposed cliffs, whence they may have a clear view of any approaching danger, for which, while quietly basking in the sun or actively running about in search of food, a constant watch is kept. When one of them raises the cry of warning, the loud piercing whistle so well known to travellers in the Alps, they all instantly take to flight and hide themselves in holes and crannies among the rocks, often not reappearing at the entrance of their hiding-places until several hours have elapsed, and then frequently standing motionless on the look-out for a still longer period. Their food consists of the roots and leaves of various Alpine plants, which, like squirrels, they lift to their mouths with their fore paws.

For their winter quarters they make a large round burrow, with but one entrance, and ending in a sleeping-place thickly padded with hay. Here often from ten to fifteen marmots pass the winter, all lying closely packed together fast asleep until the spring. On awaking, hungry with their long fast, they remove the hay with which they stuff up the doors of their burrows, and resume their life of activity and watchfulness. The breeding season is in the early summer, when they bring forth from four to six young ones. Their flesh, although coarse and rank, is eaten by the peasants, and their fur, though of but little value, is also made use of.

2. Our second genus is Cynomys, containing only the well-known " prairie dogs," or more correctly " prairie marmots," of the United States. The genus may be characterized as follows. Size and form intermediate between Arctomys and Spermophilus. Ears and tail short. Cheek-pouches shallow. Fore feet with five claws, that on the thumb as large as that on the fifth toe. Skull heavily built, the post-orbital processes di-rected outwards. Den-tition, as shown in fig. 2, remarkably heavy, the molar teeth differing from those of Arctomys and Spermophilus by having three instead of two transverse grooves on their crowns. First premolar nearly as large as the second. Molar series strongly converg-ent behind.

FIG. 2.—Under Side of Skull of Cynomys ludovicianus.

Of this genus two species have been described, very closely allied to each other, but separable by their slightly different size and coloration. The larger and better-known of the two is the eastern prairie marmot, C. ludovicianus, Ord., inhabiting the open prairies of the central United States, while the smaller species, C. columbianus, Ord., is found to the westward as far as the Rocky Mountains.

The habits of the prairie marmots have been so often described that every one is familiar with their custom of forming their burrows in groups or " towns," of sitting outside to watch intruders, and of making the peculiar barking sound from which they have derived their erroneous popular name of prairie dogs. In the burrows made by them there are commonly found three strange and, notwithstanding the earlier travellers' tales, certainly unwelcome visitors, namely, rattlesnakes, owls, and weasels, all of which at times probably prey upon the young marmots. Prairie marmots do not truly hibernate, although in the more northern and colder parts of their range they retire to their burrows during the very severest weather. They feed on grasses and roots, for whose mastication, however, their grinding teeth appear to be unnecessarily powerful.

3. The last genus to which the name marmot may be applied is that of the sousliks or pouched marmots (Spermophilus), of which the following are the characters. Size much smaller than that of Arctomys or Cynomys, and form more slender and squirrel-like. Tail very variable, from 1 to 8 or 9 inches in length. Cheek-pouches always present. Fore feet with four well-developed toes and a rudimentary thumb, of which the claw may be either present or absent. Skull much more lightly built than that of either of the preceding genera, and the post-orbital processes slender and directed backwards. Molar series nearly parallel, as in Arctomys, but all much smaller and lighter; the first premolar simply rounded, never more than about one-third of the size of the second.

The members of this large genus present a far greater range of variation than is found among the true marmots, some of them, such as the European souslik, being scarcely as large as a common squirrel, almost entirely without external ears, and with the tail reduced to a mere stump, barely an inch long, while others again are more than three times this size, with long and often tufted ears and long bushy squirrel-like tails. These differences, and other corresponding cranial ones, have caused the genus to be divided into the three following subgenera:— Spermophilus proper, containing thirteen or fourteen species, of small size, with rudimentary ear-conches, short stumpy tails, and comparatively large teeth; OtospermopMlus, two species, of squirrel-like build, with large and tufted ears, and long bushy tails ; and Ictidomys, with four species, of very slender, weasel-like form, with short ears, long but slender tails, and comparatively small teeth. The last two subgenera are confined to North America, while the range of the first is extremely similar to that of Arctomys, although certain species penetrate somewhat farther south in the New World, and none are found so far west in Europe. Professor Blasius gives the following details of the habits of the common European souslik (S. citillus, L.).

It lives in dry treeless plains, especially on a sandy or clayey soil, and is never found either in forests or on swampy ground. It forms burrows, often 6 or 8 feet deep, in which food is stored up and the winter sleep takes place. Each burrow has but one entrance, which is closed up when winter approaches,—a second hole, however, being previously formed from the sleeping-place to just below the surface of the ground. This second hole is opened trie next year, and used as the ordinary entrance, so that the number of closed up holes round a burrow gives an indication of the length of time that it has been occupied. Sousliks ordinarily feed on roots, seeds, berries, &c, but occasionally also on animal food, preying readily on eggs, small birds, and mice, the remains of these latter being often found in their burrows. They bring forth in the spring from four to eight young ones, which, if taken early, may be easily tamed. They are often eaten by the peasants, the inhabitants of the Russian steppes considering their flesh an especial delicacy. (O. T.)

The above article was written by: Oldfield Thomas, British Museum.

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