After bats, do not make marmots into villains: Expert

The rodents have come into focus ever since reports surfaced of a bubonic plague outbreak in Mongolia, China and the Russian Far East

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 07 July 2020
South Asia is home to the Himalayan Marmot. Photo: Flickr

Do not make marmots the new villains after bats, an expert cautioned on July 7, 2020, even as reports emerged of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Mongolia, China and the Russian Far East.

“We already have had the vilification of bats due to COVID-19. Please do not shift your attention to marmots now,” Sabuj Bhattacharyya, a member of the Lagomorph Specialist Group in Species Survival Commission (SSC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Switzerland.

Although Bhattacharya is not an expert on rodents, the group that marmots belong to and rather studies lagomorphs or members of the rabbit family, he has nevertheless frequently come across marmots during his study of pikas, lagomorphs that share marmot habitat.

Marmots are essentially a type of squirrel and are found on the continents of Europe, Asia and North America.

South Asia or the Indian Subcontinent is home to the Himalayan Marmot as well as the Long-tailed Marmot. The incidents of plague in Mongolia, China and the Russian Far East have been caused largely after locals consumed the Tarbagan Marmot, which is found in the region.

“Marmots are eaten in China and Mongolia. High altitude regions lack proteins. Pastoral nomads usually eat these during their days out on the steppe, when they do not have any other means of sustenance. But I don’t know whether marmots are the principal diet of people in the region,” Bhattacharya, said.

Marmots are also hunted for their fur.

The squirrels may have been mentioned in antiquity as well. According to one hypothesis, the story of the “Gold-digging ant” reported by Herodotus in Ancient Greece, originated with the Himalayan marmot, whose burrows would be dug by local tribes to collect gold dust.

“Marmots play a very important role in Himalayan ecology. They are prey species for predators including the snow leopard, red fox, hawks, kestrels and eagles,” Bhattacharyya said.

“Marmots also eat plants. Every time they dig burrows, they increase aeration in the soil that also increases nutrient circulation and helps different plants to propagate. These are the ecosystem services that the marmots offer. If they are eradicated, these services will stop,” he added.

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