Have you heard tell of the Marmot Whisperer? That's him pictured above. Photos of the boy — who goes by Matteo Walch — have been doing laps around the internet the last few days — an eight year old child from Innsbruck sharing meals, touching noses, hanging out and having a good time. With marmots. In the mountains of Austria.
The media would have you believe that it's not your fault you can't pal around with marmots, and that this Matteo character can, because Matteo is touched. Magical, if you will. So, being the jealous fun-ruiner that I am, I decided to look into just how magical Matteo really is.
First of all, let's point out the painfully obvious: these photos are both sickeningly adorable and jealousy-inducing — enough to make you question the merits of your greatest lifetime achievements, really. Oh, you're a brain surgeon? Wow. Medical school must have been quite the challenge. Still, in all that time spent learning how to cut people's heads open, it's not like you ever learned how to commune with marmots, is it?
But here's the thing. Matteo has been portrayed as being blessed with that most-subtle of gifts: the gift of marmot-whispering. I'm here to tell you that portrayal is a fabrication, an invention meant to trick you into forwarding these nauseatingly darling photographs to everyone in your inbox, and that the reality of the situation is much less saccharine.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. What are these marmots? And why is it such a big deal that they seem to have adopted this child?
The marmot is a large, omnivorous variety of ground squirrel belonging to the genus Marmota. In fact, the Alpine Marmot (Marmota marmota), the species that consorts with Matteo, is the largest of fifteen marmot species; it can reach up to 21 inches in length and tips the scales at as much as 18 pounds. Like I said: hefty. They can hold their own, but when they feel threatened, marmots will typically whistle loudly to alert others of their kind to danger. They clearly react very differently around Matteo.
Years ago, Matteo hit it off with a clan of Marmots while vacationing in the lively hills of Austria with his family, and he's been returning to visit them every year since*. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Matteo's mom intimated that the marmots look forward to her son's visits:
Their friendship has lasted for more than four years now. He loves those animals and they are not at all afraid of Matteo because he has a feeling towards them and they understand that. We go there every year now for two weeks — it's amazing to watch the connection between a boy and his animal friends.
Reading this for the first time sent me careening into a pit of existential crisis and despair. As we established above, few human accomplishments can hold a candle to the gifts of Matteo, the magical 8-year-old nature boy from Innsbruck. (And no, I am not the only person who feels this way. There is at least one other.)
It was around this time that I set about tearing Matteo's accomplishments down, and robbing the internet of its thunder in any way that I could. The easiest way to do this would obviously be to prove that these photos are fake — but they're not. So I did the next-best thing: I investigated the claim that marmots are shy creatures. Spoiler: they're not. And that might actually be a problem from a conservational standpoint.
In other words, the media has been lying to you about these marmot pictures. They do not show the remarkable friendship between a boy and timorous mammals of the hills. In reality, they reveal the extent to which humans have intruded on the marmot's natural environment, and why that may be a bad thing (regardless of how cute these photos are).
The "Shy Marmot" Myth
The Daily Mail, who first ran the photos as far as I can tell, would have us all believe that marmots are "notoriously shy around humans," but the Daily Mail isn't exactly a paragon of journalistic integrity.
According to The Big Lebowski, marmots are pretty ornery creatures — but still, it's hard to envision the Coen brothers bringing a rodent specialist on set just to provide input on the scientific accuracy of penis-seeking behavior in water-bound marmots. (Plus, that's actually a ferret. Christ, Lebowski.)
msnNOW actually doubles down on the bashful-marmot rhetoric by reporting that they are "normally exceedingly shy creatures"; but they just link back to The Daily Mail, so I remain skeptical. (Let's face it — playing up the illusion of the socially withdrawn marmot is what really sells stories on "marmot-whisperers" like Matteo.)
But the Daily Mail, the Coen Brothers, and pretty much every outlet running these absurdly cute snapshots of Matteo and his marmot pals are wrong about marmots and their "timidity".
The Perils of Habituation
As it turns out, scientists have conducted quite a bit of research on how shy marmots are (or aren't) in the presence of people, and while common sense suggests that marmots would be timid around us, that's not really the case.
"Most marmot species have been hunted, sometimes intensively, for millennia and thus would be expected to respond to humans as a threat," writes University of Montana biologist Suzanne C. Griffin in this study, which examines the effects of tourists on the behavior of marmots in Washington state's Olympic National Park. But study after study reveals that increased human disturbance (in the form of parks, trails, urbanization, and so on) tends to blunt the fear response of marmots to humans, and humans on foot, especially.
Ecologists and wildlife conservationists call this habituation. The marmots become so accustomed to seeing and interacting with humans that they cease to regard them as a threat. In a study published in this 1998 issue of Wildlife Biology, researchers Peter Neuhaus and Bruno Mainini conclude that alpine marmots (living in the very mountain ranges where Matteo works his so-called "magic") have become increasingly tolerant of close human contact in recent years, as wilderness areas are affected more and more by tourism.
Habituation is one of the marmot's only options when it comes to human disturbance, as relocating can be difficult for them. As Griffin points out:
[Marmots'] narrow habitat requirements and dependence on a complex burrow system prevent them from moving away from an area if conditions deteriorate. Similarly, they cannot temporally avoid tourists because they are diurnal and must forage extensively during the short alpine summer — when tourism is highest.
Forced to interact with humans, marmots like the ones seen here adjust to the presence of hikers by displaying a significant decrease in their response to human approach, to the point that kids like Matteo are permitted to get right up in their business. Whether you consider this a "successful accommodation of disturbance," or "a decrease in predator awareness" is a point of some contention among conservationists.
In brief: Matteo's relationship with these marmots may be adorable, it may even be kind of exceptional (there were no reports of marmots playing with children in any of the studies I just mentioned). But it's hardly outside the bounds of scientific explanation, and clearly illustrates that marmots — despite what you may have heard — are not always "exceedingly shy creatures." If anything, the fact that Matteo is able to physically interact with these marmots is an indictment of our society's continued encroachment of nature.
How's that for a fun-ruiner? You see now why I'm such a hit at parties. Now that I've rained on everyone's parade, go enjoy the photographs. Just remember that Matteo isn't as magical as he seems.