|Individual at Tshophu Lake, Bhutan (above), group with worn pelage in Ladakh, India (below)|
The Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana) is a marmot species that inhabits alpine grasslands throughout the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. It is IUCN Red Listed as Least Concern because of its wide range and possibly large population.
Arctomys Himalayanus was the scientific name proposed by Brian Houghton Hodgson in 1841 who described marmot skins from the Himalayas. In the 19th century, several Himalayan marmot specimens were described and proposed as subspecies.
The Himalayan marmot is very closely related to the Tarbagan marmot (M. sibirica) and somewhat more distantly to the—in morphology rather different—black-capped marmot (M. camtschatica). These three form a species group and its nearest relative is the bobak species group, which includes the bobak marmot (M. bobak) itself, as well as the gray (M. baibacina) and forest-steppe marmots (M. kastschenkoi). In the past, the relatively short-furred and short-tailed marmots of the Palearctic region, i.e. Himalayan, Tarbagan, gray and forest-steppe, all were regarded as subspecies of the bobak marmot.
The Himalayan marmot has a dense woolly fur that is rufous grey on the back and rufous yellowish on ears, belly and limbs. The bridge of its nose and end of tail is dark brown. It is one of the largest marmots in the world, being about the size of a large housecat. Average body mass ranges from 4 to 9.2 kg (8.8 to 20.3 lb), with weights lowest post-hibernation in spring and highest prior to it in autumn. In the autumn, average weight is reportedly more than 7 kg (15 lb) in both sexes. Total length is about 45 to 67 cm (18 to 26 in), with a tail length of 12 to 15 cm (4.7 to 5.9 in).
Distribution and habitat
The Himalayan marmot occurs in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,500 m (9,800–18,000 ft) in northeastern Pakistan, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. In China, it has been recorded in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Xizang, western Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. In the west its distribution reaches that of the long-tailed marmot (M. caudata), but the two are not known to hybridize. The Himalayan marmot lives in short grass steppes or alpine habitats, typically above the tree line but below the permanent snow limit.
Ecology and behaviour
The Himalayan marmot lives in colonies and excavates deep burrows that colony members share during hibernation. The species hibernates from the late autumn to the early spring, on average for 71⁄2 months. Burrows are between 2 and 10 m (6.6–32.8 ft) deep, given that the upper soil layer is sufficiently light and deep such as fluvioglacial, deluvial and alluvial deposits. Where soil conditions are ideal on alluvial terraces, marmot colonies comprise up to 30 families, with up to 10 families living in an area of 1 km (0.6 mi). The marmot eats plants growing on pastures, in particular the soft and juicy parts of grassy plant species like Carex, Agrostis, Deschampsia, Koeleria and flowering species like Euphrasia, Gentiana, Halenia, Polygonum, Primula, Ranunculus, Saussurea, Taraxacum Iris potaninii.
On the Tibetan plateau, marmot species form part of snow leopard prey. Other predators of Himalayan marmots include Tibetan wolves, red fox, and large birds of prey like hawks, kestrels, bearded vultures, and golden eagles.
It was known to the ancient Greek writers as the gold-digging ant apparently as reference to the fact that gold nuggets were found in the silts of the burrows these marmots dug. The French ethnologist Michel Peissel claimed that the story of 'gold-digging ants' reported by the Greek historian Herodotus was founded on the golden Himalayan marmot of the Deosai plateau and the habit of local tribes such as the Minaro to collect the gold dust excavated from their burrows.
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