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The Lessons of a Marmot Whistleblower

Why is it that the most outcast, loner marmots raise the most alarms?

by Michael Byrne
Jan 24 2015, 10:09pm

​Image: ​brewbooks/Flickr

One could imagine easily enough that within a group of animals it would be the popular and gregarious members sounding the loudest alarms in the face of danger. This was the starting assumption, anyhow, of a group of biologists studying hyper-social colonies of marmots high in the mountains of Colorado. The assumption turned out to be quite wrong, according to a new study published in the in the journal Ecology

It makes sense though: Given a group of marmots (a sprawl, properly) all hanging out and whistling at each other—which is these giant mountain squirrels are known to do—we'd expect the loudest, most center-of-attention members to continue being the loudest and most center-of-attention. Not so: What the group found is that it's actually the outcast, loner marmots that most often act as colony whistleblowers.

This is interesting for reasons beyond puns. The social activity of marmots happens to be relatively easy to observe given the species' penchant for effusive social interaction. Basically, marmots do way cute stuff that can be used to trace out entire marmot social networks. Instead of marking out relationships based on likes, trolls, and shared items of newsbait, researchers can instead note "nose rubs, cuddles, and playful tussles," according to a ​summary in Science. Which is indeed just the cutest thing.

Using these reconstructed marmot social networks, the researchers, a team based at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, were able to define each marmot according to "popularity" and "relationship strength," as the study explains. With this data in mind, they then looked to see which marmots were doing the most marmot whistleblowing, e.g. which colony members were sounding alarms about marmot-threatening things like hawks, coyotes, and other predators most often.

We found that the natural rate of alarm calling increased for marmots that were less popular.

It turned out to be the least connected members raising most alarms. "We found that the natural rate of alarm calling increased for marmots that were less popular (i.e., involved in fewer connections with other marmots) and that the rate of trap-induced calling increased for marmots involved in weaker relationships," the Rocky Mountain biologists write. This is a deeply unexpected result.

The unexpectedness has to do with the ​reciprocity hypothesis. This is a general concept within social psychology reducing to basically "returning a favor." If some member of a social network gets the most tussles and cuddles (I'm dying here, by the way), then we might reasonably expect that member to return the favor by, say, sounding a warning about that hungry-looking hawk everyone else somehow missed.

Or, reciprocity might mean that a marmot lacking in nose rubs might be less willing to behave in prosocial ways. You know, hey everyone missed that hungry-looking hawk and fuck them all. It was the opposite that held true, which is interesting.

The current study offers a couple of reasonable explanations. First, loner marmots would be the marmots most likely to get themselves into trouble at the outset, while popular marmots would be more likely to be among a group that could help out. Second, loner marmots might not like being alone very much and may see alarm-sounding as a way to get in good with the group and snag some of those cuddles.

Of course, sounding an alarm about a hawk is different than sounding an alarm about another marmot within the same colony, as would fit the proper definition of whistleblower. But there's still probably a lesson here as to the whys and why nots of blowing the whistle as a human being. If only it were just nose rubs at stake.

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