The Alpine Marmot Project

Welcome to the Alpine Marmot Project

La Grande Sassière: our field of study

geographic location

The nature reserve of La Grande Sassière (45 ° 29’N, 6 ° 58’E) is managed by the National Park of Vanoise. It is located in the Tarentaise Valley in the township of Tignes (Savoy).

It is bounded by the needle of La Grande Sassière to the north (3747 m), the Tsanteleina to the east (3602m) and and the peaks of Picheru (2953 m) and Bailletta (3701 m) to the south. The valley runs east to west, and ranges between 1850 and 3747 m above sea level.  To the west it opens onto to the lake of Tignes created by the  Tignes dam.

The climate is typically alpine.  Average temperatures are low, there are great fluctuations in weather daily and over the course of the year, and significant precipitation.

Differences in altitude and aspect encourage highly diverse vegetation. Included among the plant life are subalpine, alpine, and nival flora (Gensac 1974a). This reserve is considered particularly rich as regards plant life, and it contains many plant species rarely encountered in France (Gensac 1974b).

The fauna includes many species emblematic of the Alps such as the chamois whose latine name is Rupicapra rupicapra, or the Ibex, known scientifically as Ibex ibex.  Other species which are predators of the alpine marmot are found here as well: including the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and the golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos. Although sheep no longer graze within the reserve, cattle continue to graze in the lower part of the valley.

Marmots occupy the valley from the lowest elevation to over 3000 m up on south-facing slopes. The population of this valley is not an isolated population, but is probably part of a wider community including the lower slopes of the reserve and adjacent valleys to the South, East and North.

Study site

The study area is located in the western part of La Grande Sassière reserve at an altitude of 2350 m and covers about 40 acres around the chalet of Santel. It is traversed by four streams: two streams, one flowing from east to west and the other from north to south, divide the study area, two other streams, flowing from north to south,  serve as boundaries to the study area.

This area includes typical alpine vegetation. The grasslands are more or less rocky, with the exception of a wetland at the foot of the valley, and there are several landslide areas and an ancient repository near the chalet of Santel. The availability of food for herbivores is limited, so from late May to late September marmots may compete for resources with wild ungulates present in the area, and also with the cattle grazing in the western part of the study area.

During summer months tourists hiking the trail that traverses the valley floor, have a strong effect on the environs.  Paradoxically, this situation could be advantageous: marmots simply compensate for this  disturbance by shifting their periods of activity, and their predators avoid the area in response to the human presence.

Since 1990, 26 family groups of marmots have been studied, and all are now subject to intensive monitoring. They are divided into three area according to three exposures to the sun: the side facing South, the side facing North and the bottom of  the valley. The sunny south side corresponds to the first slopes under the needle of La Grande Sassière, the bottom of the valley corresponds to the grassy expanses located between the trail and the river which crosses the valley floor, and finally the shady north side is located on the northern side of the dome of Picheru. The north-facing side is covered with snow later, this leads to delayed plant growth and to a  shift in the annual cycle of marmots.

The map of the marmots’ territories and the composition of their family groups are accurately known and updated continuously. The population seems to have reached saturation level in this area.  Only three new territories were created by splitting existing territories between 1990 and 2005.