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Quiz #55 - Answer

by Brian Booth

1. The mystery animal is MARMOT. If you guessed WOODCHUCK or GROUNDHOG, that would basically be correct also, as marmots are the mountain version of groundhogs. Marmot tracks are much easier to find than groundhog tracks though, as marmots wake up from hibernation before the high mountain snow has melted away; whereas when groundhogs wake up from hibernation, the winter snow is usually gone.
Marmots are in the rodent family, and like other rodents, display 4 toes on the front foot, and 5 very prominent toes on the (larger) hind foot. (They actually have a vestigial thumb on the front foot, but it almost never shows in the tracks.)

2. These tracks were unusual for a marmot, as they did not display the marmot’s most common gait on snow – bounding. (For an example of a rodent bounding gait, see Quiz 43 at Instead, the marmot in this quiz was transitioning from a lope to a trot. (If you disagree, I don’t blame you, as the photos I took for this quiz did not capture that very well. But it clearly was not bounding.)

3. The marmot’s mood was alert but calm.
Most of the time, marmots are in a relaxed mood, grazing on succulent vegetation in a meadow with a burrow nearby available for escape. Their main movement is a walk, or even a slower intermittent movement that would not be characterized as a “gait”; however these types of tracks are basically never visible in the vegetation or on nearby boulder fields. Most tracks of marmots that are visible are in snow, when they are transiting to a grazing area or burrow. On open snowfields, marmots usually feel somewhat vulnerable to predators, or even frightened, and thus they usually bound (their fastest gait). Less commonly, if for some reason the marmot is not feeling as skittish, it may move on snow with a slower gait such as a lope or a trot. From the gait in this quiz, one can make a guess that the marmot was alert enough that it felt it needed to travel faster than walking, but calm enough to not be bounding. (This is just guesswork at best, but for me, envisioning what the animal was doing & thinking, as emphasized by Tom Brown Jr, is the most fun and interesting aspect of tracking.)

The marmot who made the tracks would have been a yellow-bellied marmot which inhabits Montana, while the marmot in the photo happens to be a hoary marmot, photographed in Washington, but for all practical purposes they’re the same animal.

I hope you enjoyed these tracks as much as I did. They were part of a splendid adventure in the Absaroka-Beartooth country of Montana. There will be another quiz from this trip someday – stay tuned and keep on trackin’


Quiz #55 - Question      ...on to Quiz #56

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