We met our first hoary marmot as we were trekking up Mount Rainer and almost mistook it for a groundhog. The difference is the hoary marmot has gray fur on its shoulders and upper back, hence the name ‘hoary’.
Considered the largest ground squirrel in North America, the adult hoary marmot weighs at least 10 pounds (4.5 kg) and are about 30 inches (76cm) in length. Hoary marmots are the heaviest in late summer when they acquire thick layers of fat to help them survive winter hibernation.
Hoary marmots are found in the mountains of Northwest US from Washington to central Idaho, and southwestern Canada through much of Alaska south of the Yukon River. They typically live in open habitats such as steppes, alpine meadows, pastures, gravel-covered fields and forest edge.
Not a night creature, the hoary marmot is most active in the morning and afternoon. They like to “sun bathe” themselves on rocks, spending almost half of their morning doing so…not unlike some of us 😊. They search for food for the rest of the day and return to their holes to sleep during the night.
Hoary Marmots are not afraid of humans and will continue their lives while being watched. The hoary marmot that we encountered was totally oblivious to us observing him just a several steps away. A cool rat.
Closer to hibernation time hoary marmots like to socialize through play fighting, wrestling, social grooming, and nose-to-nose touching. They hibernate in burrows to survive the arctic winters, and emerge in April or early May to acquire food and find mates. In the summer, hoary marmots use the burrows to sleep and hide from their predators. Homebodies, they stay in their holes for almost 80% of their lives. Hoary marmots live in territories of up to 36.
Expressive creatures, hoary marmots use at least seven distinct types of calls, including chirps, whistles, growls, and whining sounds, to communicate. Hence, the hoary marmot has earned itself the nickname of ‘whistling pig’. Many of these calls are used as alarms, alerting fellow mates in their colony to potential predators such as coyotes, foxes, badgers, and sometimes when they see eagles and other large birds.
Hoary marmots live for about 13-15 years, feeding on grass, flowers, berries, roots, moss and lichen. The marmots themselves have been eaten by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Marmot fat or “mankei fat” has long been considered a relief for arthritic pain and applied to soothe joint aches.
A familiar resident in alpine terrain, do look out for these rather adorable marmots the next time you go for a hike up the mountains.