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Climate change appears to be helping, not hurting, the yellow-bellied marmot (for now)

July 27, 2010 |  5:48 pm

Marmot In a new report published last week in the journal Nature, scientists explained that at least one animal -- the yellow-bellied marmot -- appears to be benefiting, rather than suffering, from the effects of climate change.

The researchers take an annual census of the yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado's Upper East River Valley, and what they've learned from the yearly count may surprise you: Warmer weather seems to help the animals to store fat that helps them survive in the winter. It also results, of course, in shorter winters, which are easier for a marmot to survive regardless of his or her weight.

Since the researchers began their detailed study of the marmot population in 1976, spring-like temperatures have arrived in their home range about a day earlier every year.

Those incremental changes have added up to mean that the marmots emerge from hibernation close to a month earlier than they did when the study began. That allows them to get in extra eating time, and it also means that baby marmots are born earlier in the year. Those baby marmots have more time to put on weight before they hibernate. Fat marmots are happy marmots who are statistically more likely to survive a winter without food.

There's a downside to all of this, though, the researchers warn. "The summer food is drying up," study coauthor Daniel Blumstein of UCLA said. "Summer droughts really nail the population." That could eventually be the marmots' undoing.

Learn more about the study in reporter Karen Kaplan's recent story in The Times.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A yellow-bellied marmot pup. Credit: Raquel Monclus / Nature

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