Marmots are benign, pot-bellied members of the squirrel family. They are about the size of a cat
and squeak loudly when alarmed. Less appealingly, the bobac variety, found on the Mongolian
steppe, is particularly susceptible to a lung infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis,
commonly known as bubonic plague.
They spread it around by coughing on their neighbours, infecting fleas, rats and, ultimately, humans.
All the great plagues that swept through Eastern Asia to Europe came from marmots in Mongolia. The estimated death-toll is over a billion, making the marmot second only to the malarial mosquito as a killer of humans. When marmots and humans succumb to plague, the lymph glands under the armpits and in the groin become black and swollen (these sores are called ‘buboes’, from Greek boubon, ‘groin’, hence ‘bubonic’). Mongolians will never eat a marmot’s armpits because ‘they contain the soul of a dead hunter’.
The other parts of the marmot are a delicacy in Mongolia. Hunters have complicated rituals to stalk
their prey that include wearing false rabbit-ears, dancing and waving the tail of a yak. The captured
marmots are barbecued whole over hot stones. In Europe, the fat of the alpine marmot is valued as a salve for rheumatism. Other species of marmot include the American prairie dog and the woodchuck, or groundhog.
Groundhog Day is on 2 February. Each year, a marmot known as Punxsutawney Phil is pulled out of his electrically heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania by his tuxedo-clad ‘keepers’ who
ask him if he can see his shadow. If he whispers ‘yes’, it means winter has six weeks to go. Since
1887, Phil has never been wrong.
Bubonic plague is still with us today – the last serious outbreak occurred in India in 1994 – and it
is one of the three diseases listed in the US as requiring quarantine (the other two being yellow fever and cholera).