The picturesque landscape of the French-Italian border, nestled high in the Alps, is often associated with serene beauty and tranquility. Hikers and nature enthusiasts frequent these mountains, where they may catch a glimpse of the famous alpine marmot. But behind the cuddly facade portrayed in Milka chocolate ads lies a shocking reality – the life of an alpine marmot is a ceaseless, bloody battle for dominance. These mountain-dwellers are nothing short of “mega-violent,” as ecologist Christophe Bonenfant and his colleague Rébecca Garcia attest. And now, with the climate crisis escalating, their fight for survival has turned deadlier than ever.
The Rodent Researchers
Imagine a sweltering summer day at sea level, but high in the mountains, where snow still lingers, scientists Christophe Bonenfant and Rébecca Garcia embark on a perilous mission. Bonenfant carries a cage, and inside it, a hessian bag wriggles and squirms. Their cargo: a 4kg alpine marmot, bewildered and anxious.
The Cycle of Reproduction
Alpine marmots live in tightly-knit family groups. At the top of the hierarchy stands one dominant couple, while subordinate offspring help with raising the young and providing essential body warmth during the harsh winter hibernation. Only the dominant pair has the privilege to reproduce; they enforce sterilization upon the others by keeping their stress hormones at debilitating levels. Subordinates with breeding ambitions face a harsh choice: either challenge a dominant marmot for territory, or resort to the macabre alternative of killing their own parents.
The Brutal Game of Burrows
Enter the cruel theatre of “Game of Burrows.” Much like a certain television series, this name aptly encapsulates the backstabbing and vicious power struggles within these rodent family groups. On patrol, Garcia even points out a territory where a brother and sister established a new dynasty last year, humorously dubbed “the Lannisters.”
Climate Crisis: A Catalyst for Carnage
Data accumulated by scientists at the Université de Lyon since 1990 offers insights into the alpine marmot’s brutal ways. Moreover, it reveals a concerning trend: the rapidly warming climate in the Alps has turned each season of the “Game of Burrows” more bloodthirsty than the last. Conflicts are on the rise, and subordinates are leaving their family groups prematurely, leading to more fights for dominance.
Snow Scarcity Spells Trouble
In an age of global warming, marmots face the same predicament as the nearby ski resorts – not enough snow. Families depend on a thick snow layer to insulate their burrows during the long winter hibernation. Thinning snow cover results in colder burrows, making it less likely for marmot pups to survive, even with the warmth of their family. Tragically, baby marmots are as likely to perish in large family groups as the young of a single dominant couple.
Population Plummet and Climate Challenges
The increase in dominant couple changeovers leads to more infanticides of the marmot pups that do survive the winter. Additionally, climate-related changes act as threat multipliers for these vulnerable rodents. Marmots require wide-open prairies to alert their family members to approaching predators. Yet, as the Alps heat up, the treeline inches higher, shrinking their territory, while new predators like foxes encroach upon their habitat.
A Harsh Reality for Alpine Marmots
While marmots are not yet classified as endangered, their population dwindles by 4% each year due to this relentless cycle. As the Alps stand as climate sentinels of Europe, alpine marmots are the sentinels of the Alps. They vividly illustrate how a species with a complex social structure can quickly see its life transformed in the face of human-induced global warming, leaving them with a life that is becoming more nasty, brutish, and short.
So there you have it, the harsh, bloodthirsty world of alpine marmots and how the climate crisis is intensifying their struggles for survival in the picturesque Alps. These seemingly docile creatures are a stark reminder of the impact of climate change on our environment and the complex web of life it touches.