Most of us have observed squirrels at some point, watched them nibble on food, groom their bottlebrush tails, and scurry up branches and electric poles with speed and agility. They seem perpetually busy. The Indian palm squirrel — the one with three white stripes on its back — is generally seen around trees in south India and Sri Lanka, and eats largely tree fruit, seeds, and insects. In north India we have five-striped palm squirrel. But there are over 200 species of squirrels, and each has physiological adaptations suited to its diet and habitat.
Among the many members of the squirrel family, is the Himalayan marmot, found in high altitudes of India, Nepal, Pakistan, and China, between 2,900 and 5,500 m. Unlike tree squirrels, marmots are ground-dwellers that live in open grasslands and nest in burrows underground. They have a thick coat of fur to protect them from the cold of the high mountains, but even that doesn’t suffice when winter arrives, turning the craggy habitats of many of the regions in Ladakh from brown to brilliant, snowy white. The views are beautiful to behold, but hard to endure, especially for species like marmots that subsist on ground flora, which die out in the winter.
To survive, Himalayan marmots hibernate for anywhere between six and eight months every year. “In some of the colonies that we follow, hibernation begins around September-end to October-end, and lasts until mid-April to mid-May,” says biologist Nandini Rajamani, who has been studying marmots in Ladakh for about three years. But the hibernation duration varies, depending on locations and topography, since it is known to be linked to weather. “All species of marmots have compressed annual life-cycles, with their behaviour and activity confined to a 4-6-month window,” says Rajamani. This means they mate, birth, and parent in a relatively short span of time, compared to other species. All in all, Himalayan marmots are fascinating for the ways in which they have evolved to survive in their harsh habitats.