Humans have a bit of a chequered relationship with rodents. Some find them adorable, others detest them. Apprehension is understandable and may be to do with a rodent's ability to carry and transmit disease, with the Black Death a particularly dark chapter in our long relationship with the little creatures. Its association with rats may be a little bit unfair though, as it was actually spread by hitchhiking fleas.
As the heaviest of the squirrel family, marmots are a particularly impressive kind of rodent. They inhabit alpine regions, which has led many-a-hiker to ask: are marmots dangerous?
Meet our expert
While there are no marmots in her native Scotland, Julia spent much of her adult life in the States, where she loved nothing more than exploring the Rocky Mountains. As a nature lover, she's always on the look out for wildlife – whether its spotting ptarmigan or eagles in the Highlands or watching marmots or ibex in the Alps. She loves exploring the world's alpine regions, often with her binoculars to hand.
If you live in the Rocky Mountains, you barely even bat an eye when you come across a marmot on the trail. You just smile at the chunky little floofers and keep walking. But if you’ve just arrived in the mountains, you might be a little unsure about these rather large rodents that at first glance appear to be some kind of radioactive squirrel and seem to be everywhere in the high country, squeaking alarm bells at the sound of your hiking boots marching up the trail.
After all, if you saw a rodent that size back in the Midwest, you’d be on the phone to animal control. So what is a marmot, anyway? And are marmots dangerous? We take a look at these giant, furry inhabitants of the mountains.
What is a marmot?
- A marmot is a large member of the squirrel family of rodents
- They’re omnivorous and live in high alpine environments, plains and steppes
- Their bulky bodies can be up to 23 inches long
- They’re known for their high-pitched whistle, an alarm call when in danger
A marmot is a rodent – a rather large one – and a member of the squirrel family, though almost definitely bigger than any you’ve seen in Central Park. These giant omnivorous ground squirrels are best suited to cold environments, so they are mostly found in the high alpine environments of North America as well as places like the Alps, the Himalayas and northeastern Siberia where they graze on tundra vegetation, grass, flowers and seeds. If you’re an adventurer, you’re probably going to see a lot of them.
There are 14 different species of marmot and they can weigh 6-15lb (3-7kg). They have bulky bodies up to 23 inches long, short legs and short, bushy tails. Their medium length fur can be brown, reddish or yellowish brown, black, or gray and white.
Marmots are often found in the mountains, though they also inhabit plains and steppes, and they live in self-built burrows that offer them protection from predators such as grizzly bears. When they’re not hiding from bears, marmots often stand guard on rocks and cliffs and, when they spot you coming, they’ll discharge a high-pitched alarm whistle, which you’ll usually hear before you set eyes on them. If they feel threatened, they’ll scurry off back to their burrow, but if it’s a popular hiking trail, chances are that they’ll be used to hikers and just cast a curious eye over you as you pass by.
Is a marmot the same as a groundhog?
- Groundhogs are a type of marmot
- Groundhogs can be found at lower elevations than most types of marmot
If marmots remind you of Bill Murray reading the weather on repeat, that’s because groundhogs are indeed a type of marmot. Groundhogs are also found at lower elevations, such as the eastern and central United States, which explains the strange February 2 tradition of examining a groundhog’s shadow – or lack thereof – to determine whether or not spring will come early. Sort of.
Are marmots aggressive?
- Marmots won’t attack humans unless threatened
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably guessed by now that marmots don’t really pose any threat to you whatsoever. They’re largely vegetarian and like you, mostly trying not to get eaten by a bear. That said, like most wildlife, if you did try to touch or threaten a marmot, we can’t promise it wouldn’t bite you, but the simple answer is to leave the poor things alone. This goes for all wildlife safety.
Do marmots carry diseases?
- Marmots can carry ticks, which can carry Lyme disease, tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) and Rock Mountain Spotted Fever
- Marmots could also transmit rabies
- It’s sensible not to approach marmots or feed them
Just as rats can carry disease spreading fleast, marmots can carry ticks, which in turn can carry Lyme disease, tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. They could also transmit rabies, so if your instinct upon seeing one is to squeal 'OMG so cute!' and chase after it, don't. Practice simple safety and don’t approach marmots.
Though they're likely to give you a wide berth, they might approach you if you have food, but please don’t feed them either, as this can cause them harm. Marmots in the French Alps were discovered to have developed diabetes due to tourists feeding them!
So, to recap, you can enjoy marmots from afar without fearing for your safety. If you are adventuring in the Rocky Mountain areas, however, you will want to know what to do if you meet a mountain lion or a bear on the trail.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.