The Vancouver Island Marmot

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of attending a talk by the incredible Dr. Jane Goodall for the first time. An idol of mine for many years, it was a bucket list opportunity for me. This post is not about her, however. Instead, I want to talk about something that she brought up when she was discussing examples of humans working together to positively influence animals in some way. She mentioned an old study species of mine, the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis). This marmot was her Canadian example of humans coming together and bringing back a species from the brink of extinction. She was referring to the work of the Marmot Recovery Foundation. It made me wonder if many people are aware of this good-news story. Given the last few months of gut-wrenching news across the world, I figured we could all use something positive.

My view of Dr. Jane Goodall (left) during her talk on June 24, 2022 in Victoria, British Columbia.

I first learned about the Vancouver Island marmot in my undergraduate degree. In Natural Resource Management we learn about the environment and how to effectively manage it. One story we refer to, when referencing examples of how this is done well, is the story of the Vancouver Island marmot. This marmot is called such because it is endemic to Vancouver Island1, meaning it is not found anywhere else on earth; it is genetically unrelated to other marmot species2. It likely originally got to the island via a land bridge during a glacial period some 100,000 years ago3. After the glacial retreat, the marmot was essentially stranded on the island, left there to evolve within the constraints of an island ecosystem4. After the glacier melted, forests regenerated across the island, limiting the marmot’s favourite habitat: subalpine meadows4. Forestry practices through the 1980s created more meadows and their population increased, only to fall again once these meadows began to fill up with trees5. Trees limit the marmot’s ability to see predators coming, so meadows are necessary for their survival5,6. By the early 2000s there were only about 30 Vancouver Island marmots left in the wild5.

The Vancouver Island Marmot. Photograph by Trevor Dickinson.

After local conservation groups voiced concern for the marmot, a captive-breeding program began in 19976 and the Marmot Recovery Foundation was founded in 19997 to lead on-the-ground rescue initiatives to save this species. Vancouver Island marmots are bred in captivity at both the Calgary8 and Toronto Zoos9, as well at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre10. Captive-bred marmots are then brought to the facility on Mount Washington first, where they acclimate before being fully released into the wild10. Between 1999 and 2017, over 470 captive-bred marmots were reintroduced on Vancouver Island6 and in 2021 there were over 250 individuals living in the wild11.

The Vancouver Island Marmot. Photograph by Trevor Dickinson.

Today they are still classified as endangered provincially, nationally, and internationally11 and their leading cause of death is predation12. In fact, they are Canada’s most endangered mammal. But, with a Recovery Team and various national partners dedicated to their continued survival, we should see their population continue to increase in the future. With everything going on in the world, we need good-news stories every once in a while. Unfortunately, like everything on earth, this species faces the potential impacts of climate change. (For example, see Dave McLaughlin’s work using my research data for an interesting perspective of this). But that’s why we’re all doing our part to help mitigate climate change, right?

  1. Government of Canada. (2019). Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis): COSEWIC assessment and status report 2019.
  2. Cardini, A., Thorington Jr, R.W., & Polly, P.D. (2007). Evolutionary acceleration in the most endangered mammal of Canada: speciation and divergence in the Vancouver Island marmot (Rodentia, Sciuridae). Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20(5), 1833-1846.
  3. Marmot Recovery Foundation. (n.d.). History & Decline.
  4. Bryant, A.A., & Janz, D.W. (1996). Distribution and abundance of Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 74(4): 667-677
  5. Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Team. (2008). Recovery Strategy for the Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) in British Columbia.
  6. Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Team. (2017). Recovery Plan for the Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) in British Columbia.
  7. Marmot Recovery Foundation. (n.d.). About the Foundation.
  8. Calgary Zoo. (2022). The Calgary Zoo welcomes five endangered Vancouver Island marmot pups.
  9. Toronto Zoo. (n.d.). Vancouver Island marmot captive breeding.
  10. Marmot Recovery Foundation. (n.d.). Captive Breeding.
  11. Marmot Recovery Foundation. (n.d.). Current Status.
  12. Aaltonen, K., Bryant, A.A., Hostetler, J.A., & Oli, M.K. (2009). Reintroducing endangered Vancouver Island marmots: Survival and cause-specific mortality rates of captive-born versus wild-born individuals. Biological Conservation, 142, 2181-2190.
Additional Information
  • See my Resources page to learn more about climate change and how to help
  • Click the links throughout this post for more information (black text links to other webpages)

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