Sʼaax̱; Marmota caligata, colloquially, whistler, groundhog

Distracted by charismatic megafauna—deer, bear, goat, wolf—it may take awhile for even perceptive naturalists to recognize how much more profoundly our country can be shaped by unassuming rodents, especially the big three: beaver, porky and marmot. Granted, their workings may be more localized—in the beaver-bottoms, porky-forests and marmot meadows—but these relatively sedentary critters are each keystone species, around whom communities revolve.

Young marmot near summit of Shaa Tlaax, moldy top (Mt J-word)

Along with bats and jumping mice, marmots are the only true hibernators in Southeast Alaska (bears go to den but their body temperature stays high). Hibernation allows s’aax to permanently inhabit lush subalpine meadows that may be ‘salad bowls’ in summer but in winter lie buried under snow. Unlike beaver and porcupine, marmots needn’t shift to low-quality woody diets in the ‘hungry season.’ Too slow to outrun predators, marmots ‘farm’ these meadows, as if tethered like horses to their burrow entries, clipping, plowing, trampling, and fertilizing.

Although generally known as high-mountain animals, in Lingít Aaní we have unique, rather mysterious, coastal marmot enclaves. Far from mountain source populations, these lowland marmots nevertheless gravitate to similar, flowery habitats such as uplift parkland.

In this section

Whistlers on the mountains

Hoary marmots by Armstrong & Hermans In 2006, inspired by the amazing photo library Bob Armstrong had been accumulating, mostly…

2006 | Bob Armstrong & Marge Hermans | 33 pages

Mid-May on Shaa Tlaax

Goats, geology & zonation on Shaa Tlaax, moldy top (Mt Juneau) Video-journal of the flora, fauna, and geomorphology that hikers…

2019 | Richard Carstensen | 4 minutes