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Scaring Marmots with Taxidermy: My ReNewZoo Internship

By Sarah Nason

A really great internship will introduce you to new experiences and give you a little taste of everything at that workplace – in my case, that included the strategic use of taxidermy for giant rodent research purposes. Well, let’s say that I didn’t exactly expect that part of my internship with the Calgary Zoological Society’s Centre for Conservation Research, but this project combined the wacky with the practical in just the way that made me fall in love with wildlife research to begin with! (I basically started my professional path by learning to milk squirrels in the Yukon, so, that’s a thing.)

Okay, let’s backpedal and explain a few things: what does taxidermy have to do with marmot conservation research? This summer the researchers and animal care staff at the Calgary Zoo teamed up to assess how captive-bred marmots respond to potential predators, using taxidermy models of animals such as wolves and cougars as stimuli. I was lucky enough to be invited to help out with the study for a couple weeks, taking plenty of photos of the clever, but admittedly bizarre, experimental set-up along the way.

Like most experimental designs, the elaborate final product was a necessary invention to address a series of problems. For one thing, how do you make a marmot look only at a taxidermy model and not other things in the environment? This has to be assured to so that you’re not measuring the marmot’s response to something else. To avoid any other stimuli but the model from affecting marmot behaviour, the team set up two blinds on either side of the marmots’ enclosures: one to hide the taxidermy model, and one to hide a researcher. Add a cart under the model, a track for it to roll along in front of the enclosures, and a rope for the researcher to pull: you’ve got yourself a portable mock predator with no other visual distractions!

A cougar on wheels ready to go! Now, how often can you say that?

Now, we can’t only test the marmots’ reactions to predator taxidermy models, because that might just represent their response to a big cart with a fuzzy thing on it going by. I mean hey, that’s alarming, it’s not exactly what you expect on your average day chilling in your enclosure. So the team also mounted several other taxidermy models of animals that likely did not present a predation risk: a magpie and a goat, for example. Finally, we also ran trials with just the cart and with no stimulus at all, getting the full range of marmot behaviour to compare our predator trials to.

When there is a taxidermy magpie at eye level, you must attempt to woo it. This is the only correct thing to do.

The next problem is to try to coax a marmot to position itself perpendicularly to the track where said taxidermy models will be pulled across. As you might guess, that’s not a particularly easy task – this part of the project really showed me how important zookeepers and animal training professionals can be to a project with sensitive animals. A zookeeper assigned to the project directed this part of the operation, designing a program that included acclimatizing each marmot to the enclosures with and without bait, and eventually also closing the door to their indoor habitat that they normally always receive access to. After this training phase, the marmots were much easier to work with and could be lured outside and on top of a hay bale in each enclosure using a nummy mix of veggies.

Okay, it’s not over yet: now, how do you see a marmot without it seeing you? Because we had those blinds set up to prevent marmots from being distracted by our presence near the enclosures, we weren’t able to see if the marmot had come out and jumped up on the hay bale, so we couldn’t be sure when to start pulling the rope. Here, technology was our friend: cameras set up inside the enclosures that delivered a live feed to computers inside the building allowed us to creep on the marmots without their knowledge! Once a researcher inside could see the marmot was ready to go, a quick text message to the researcher outside was all that was needed.

The marmot pictured above was named Feist and was notoriously the “slowest eater in the world.” Makes for long, exhausting trials, but also good photo ops!

Scientific studies often make me feel like I’m solving a puzzle, figuring out where all the pieces need to fit in order to make a study work or to make sense of a phenomenon I’m observing in nature. This elegantly designed experiment is a great example of how that puzzle-making process works in order to produce reliable science! After another researcher in the Conservation Research department dedicatedly goes through all that video footage and records the marmots’ behaviours (power to you, whoever you are), we will be able to analyze the data to see how marmots are responding to other species they might encounter in the wild. Hopefully we will see marmots expressing cautious behaviours, such as running and hiding, when they were exposed to predators. If not, this gives the team a clue as to how to proceed in the future: perhaps some predator preparation training will be in order! Yes, phase two could be training marmots to recognize and react to predators appropriately, or, a much better name: Marmot Boot Camp.

This was just one of the fantastic experiences I had during my time with the Conservation Research group at the Calgary Zoo, and I am so grateful for the experience and for the people I met!

Now, for the benefit of the reader: cute marmot media.

Yes, the marmots live in pairs. This is a gift to all of us.

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