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Loner woodchucks

It’s not unusual to see yellow-bellied marmots while hiking in Montana. These large rodents can weigh about 3 to 5 pounds and measure more than 2 feet long.

Early visitors to the West called them whistle pigs because they make a high-pitched bark as a warning call. Modern visitors have to worry about the marmots eating the plastic off their vehicle’s spark plug wires when they park at the trailhead for a long hike.

About half of all marmots die in their first year of life, often at the hands of predators like coyotes or foxes. If a marmot survives that first year, it may live five to seven years.

Recently, scientists at the University of California-Los Angeles spent 13 years, six hours a day, from springtime to fall watching a group of adult female marmots in western Colorado. The researchers were writing down how social the animals were, doing things like touching each other, sitting side-by-side or playing. Males tend to be less friendly than females.

What the scientists discovered is that marmots that spent more time by themselves lived on average about two years longer than those that liked to hang out with other marmots. Research of humans has shown just the opposite: that people who are more social live longer on average than loners.

The researchers figure that marmots that like to socialize with others may not live as long because they could be more likely to get parasites and fleas. There also may be more competition for food, so friendly marmots don’t get as much to eat.

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Fattening up is very important to marmots who live in the mountains where the winters are long. Sometimes marmots can end up hibernating for eight months of the year.

So next time you see a lone marmot, wish it well. It may live longer than the friendly ones.

— Brett French,

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