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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Hermit and the Marmot

Air Date: Week of October 10, 2008

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For years, Billy Barr kept detailed records about plants, animals, and the weather, from his perch in a remote cabin in Gothic, Colorado. Scientists are especially interested in his logs about the rodent marmot, as Colorado Public Radio Zachary Barr reports.


GELLERMAN: Well it’s quite a ways from Barcelona—to the ghost town of Gothic, Colorado—but both provide us with important data about the disrupting effects of global climate change on nature. Key to our understanding are historical records. Which is why research scientists owe a debt of gratitude to a loner named Billy Barr—who kept meticulous notes about the weather and animals in remote Gothic, Colorado.

Reporter Zachary Barr—no relations to Billy—has our story.

ZACHARY BARR: When Billy Barr first came to Colorado, he was an East Coast college student looking for, in his words, ‘a quiet space to get away from social pressures.’ So when he got to the ghost town of Gothic, high up in the Colorado Rockies, he knew he wanted to stay a while. He began the winter of 1974 in a tent. At this altitude it snows twenty-five feet a year. Halfway through that first winter, the owner of an old mining shack saw how Billy has living and offered the shivering camper his abandoned cabin.

BILLY BARR: This is where the cabin used to be. It ran from here, eight feet this way and ten feet that way.

ZACHARY BARR: ThatÂ’s Billy. That shack burned down several years ago, and so right now heÂ’s tracing its perimeter on the ground with a stick.

BILLY BARR: Just this little square here and that was it. And I spent eight years in that.

ZACHARY BARR: In an eight-by-ten cabin?


ZACHARY BARR: Inside the tiny shack, winters were long and frigid. Blowing snow was everywhere, including inside the cabin. On top of that, Billy could go weeks without seeing another human. So itÂ’s not surprising that he paid special attention to animals.

BILLY BARR: Like hereÂ’s March 21, 1978. I saw a grey jay, a grosbeak, a raven, a nuthatch and so on.

ZACHARY BARR: Billy kept incredibly detailed notebooks, jotting down every animal he saw, every day, all winter long. Then, when spring was near, new animals showed up.

BILLY BARR: Yeah, it was just interesting. It was like, oh look, thereÂ’s a nuthatch. I donÂ’t usually see a nuthatch in March. IÂ’ll make note of it.

ZACHAY BARR: WhyÂ’d you do this?

BILLY BARR: You know, I was living in an eight-by-ten-foot shack with not a lot to do.

ZACHARY BARR: Now thatÂ’s the backstory. But you also need to know that BillyÂ’s shack is near the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. ItÂ’s a summer research station where Billy now works as the office manager. In addition to other things, the lab is a sort of worldwide headquarters for people researching marmots. In case you didnÂ’t know, Italian grad student Eleanora Ferrando explains.

FERRANDO: Oh a marmot is like a big rodent. TheyÂ’re not like big rats. TheyÂ’re nice, and theyÂ’re really cute.


ZACHARY BARR: Today Eleanora is helping to tag marmot pups Â….


ZACHARY BARR: Â… who chirp this alarm call when theyÂ’re temporarily caught inside a live trap.


ZACHARY BARR: But despite studying the furry brown creatures for decades, researchers didnÂ’t know when marmots wake up each spring from hibernation. And thatÂ’s something biologist David Inouye was interested in. And he, like Billy, spends a lot of time at the field station. Do you see where this is going? About eight years ago David found out about BillyÂ’s notebooks. Eureka!

INOUYE: Billy has data for chipmunks, he has data for ground squirrels, he has data for marmots. I think thatÂ’s why itÂ’s unusual, the fact that there is this record for, a long term record for, a small mammal emerging from hibernation. ItÂ’s not something that many people have paid attention to in the past.

ZACHARY BARR: David took BillyÂ’s observation and compared it to temperature records. Over the past thirty years, average spring temperatures in Gothic have risen two degrees Fahrenheit. And over that same period of time, marmots are emerging from hibernation about three to four weeks earlier.

INOUYE: Used to be when marmots would come up through the snow in April they’d stick their heads out, it was still cold and they’re go back down and hibernate for a few more weeks. But now when they come out through the snow, it’s relatively warm. They decide, ‘oh, winter’s over’ even though they may have had to dig themselves out of six feet of snow.

ZACHARY BARR: And thatÂ’s what happened this year. Snow was everywhere, and so coyotes had a field day eating marmots. ThereÂ’s just nowhere to hide. Scientists arenÂ’t concerned about marmots going extinct, but some species are threatened, particularly those that live only at high elevations. And some animals, like these, are being forced to higher ground.

INOUYE: ThereÂ’s at least one species of bumblebee that seems to occur about 2,000 feet higher in altitude now than it used to back in the 1970s, and others that seem to be disappearing, or at least becoming very rare, at lower altitudes.

ZACHARY BARR: Now, everything we’ve been talking about has a scientific name – phenology. That’s the timing of the life cycle events of plants and animals, when flowers bloom, when birds migrate, or when marmots stop hibernating. And all over the world, there’s increasing evidence that climate change is messing up phenology in nature. But if you’re a scientist, you need hard data, so the push is on to find more people like Billy Barr.

WELTZIN: Anybody can learn how to do the monitoring of a plant in their backyard. And they can enter their data online. Then it becomes part of the national database to understand how climate change is affecting those plants across the United States.

ZACHARY BARR: ThatÂ’s Jake Weltzin. HeÂ’s heading up the National Phenology Network. ItÂ’s just launched a Web site where you can submit your own data. So far, one of the networkÂ’s most impressive finds comes from Tuscon, Arizona.

WELTZIN: We were contacted by a citizen scientist named Dave Bertelson. And Dave, it turns out, had been hiking up the Catalina Mountains on a five-mile trail for twenty years. Each Wednesday, he would track the plants that he saw that were in flower, and he would record that information.

ZACHARY BARR: DaveÂ’s notebook had 110,000 observations. But even if you have zero observations, you can start now, just by keeping an eye on whatever nature is in your daily life.

WELTZIN: If you live in the Northeast, you can help us monitor sugar maple. If you live in Tuscon, help us monitor Saguaro. For some species like dandelions, that grow everywhere, we encourage people to actually help collect data on those.

ZACHARY BARR: And if that sounds interesting, thereÂ’s one more volunteer job you should know about. TheyÂ’re going to need someone new in Gothic, Colorado soon. Billy BarrÂ’s moving. HeÂ’s built a house an hour away and 2,000 feet lower down in Gunnison. He says he just canÂ’t stand the winters anymore.

For Living on Earth, IÂ’m Zachary Barr.



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