Dr. Jamie Gorrell is about to unlock the DNA of Canada’s most endangered animal, the Vancouver Island marmot.

“We wanna make sure these guys survive. To the next generation and for generations after that,” said the professor of Biology at VIU.

The whistling rodent has captured hearts. A foundation and zoo breeding program is dedicated to its survival.

The species sunk to just 30 animals in the wild in the early 2000s is now up to 150 animals. But the genetic diversity of going down to such a small number has raised flags about the probability of inbreeding that could make the recovering species vulnerable to disease and reduced survivability.

“Now we’ve been able to bring that population’s size back up, there’s more marmots. But we’ve probability lost genetic diversity on the way and we can’t really get that back,” said Gorrell.

“And as you’ve said with just a few individuals, we’ve got to maximize the genetic diversity of that population,” said Marmot Recovery Foundation’s Mike Lester.

With Gorrell on board with a new research grant, the Vancouver Island marmot team is about to have each of these animals DNA mapped.

“To help recommend which breeding pairs should be put together and start to tease apart the differences between these guys,” said Gorrell.

With 10 different satellite release locations across the mid-Island, animals with close DNA could also be separated by as much as 100 kilometres to ensure the species stays healthy.

“We can bring individuals and physically transplant them from one place to another to maximize that genetic diversity,” said Lester.

Every marmot released into the wild has had their DNA taken, so cracking their codes can start right away.

Since the playful rodents are already burrowed away for the winter and are in hibernation, researchers have a good long while to plan the dating game for next spring.

Skye Ryan