Science Story July 2022
The marmoteer's daughter
For Karole Armitage, spending her childhood at RMBL was like growing up in utopia. In this remote Rocky Mountain wilderness, she says that she and her brothers roamed wild and free. They held skunk cabbage wars. They tried riding and were thrown off a donkey. They watched their border collie herd porcupines. At the same time, they basked in a company of towering intellectual figures, world-famous scientists who conducted leading-edge research in their playground. Among them was her father, Dr. Kenneth B. Armitage. Inspired by his insatiable appetite for discovery, Karole grew up embracing curiosity and imagination.
Her father, who died in January at the age of 96, made RMBL the home of one of the longest running studies of a mammalian species when he spent more than 40 years observing the behavior of RMBL’s resident yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventer). The globally renowned behavioral and physiological ecologist not only authored 252 scientific publications, including a book on his life’s work called, “Marmot Biology: Sociality, Individual Fitness, and Population Dynamics,” but also delivered over 14 international lectures and advised marmot research programs the world over, including one that led to recovering Vancouver Island marmots from the brink of extinction. Dr. Armitage also held the distinction of having produced an IMBd short film, “The Study of Groundhogs: A Real Life Look at Marmots.”
As passionate as Ken was about RMBL’s marmot community, whose individuals he could identify, he was equally devoted to the education of undergraduates at the University of Kansas, where he chaired the Biology Department and purposefully taught freshman biology his entire career. Karole says that he wanted every person to have a great foundation in biology.
He mentored a fair number of graduate students, as well. His teaching and research assistants dubbed themselves “The Marmoteers.” To colleagues and students, Ken’s identity was forever linked with marmots. The RMBL cabin occupied by the Armitage family every summer became known as “The Marmitage.”
Before the family made RMBL their summer home, Ken was studying the marmots at Yellowstone National Park. But it was a long hike to reach the animals. Karole says that a conversation with his good friend Paul Ehrlich (author of “The Population Bomb”) persuaded Ken to relocate to RMBL. Dr. Ehrlich had come to visit his friend at the biological laboratory in Grand Teton, and he told Ken that he should move his research to RMBL, where he could drive his car straight to the marmot colonies.
So it was 1962 when the Armitage family first landed at RMBL. Ken’s marmot study stayed here in the East River Valley until 2003 when the project and cabin were passed on to Daniel Blumstein, who had worked with Dr. Armitage as a post-doctoral researcher. (“Marmot Mania,” April 2020) and continues directing the now six-decade study.
Each year, the Armitages were the first family to arrive at RMBL so they could be there when the animals emerged from hibernation in spring. The early days were rugged. They had to haul water from the spring until a caretaker showed up to turn on the water. There was no hot water. Even Crested Butte was primitive by today’s standards. Yet Karole remembers it being a hotbed of sophisticated cultural knowledge. The theater in town showed Fellini and Bergman films. She attended lectures by scientists. Even as a small child, she could sense that it was an environment in which the exchange of ideas — in science, politics, culture — flourished. And while she didn’t yet comprehend the global value of her father’s work, she knew he was doing something important.
Meanwhile, the kids were developing critical thinking skills, imagination, and an appreciation for science. Karole’s brother Keith became a doctor and is now Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine, Internal Medicine Program Director and Chair of the infectious disease program at University Hospitals at Case Western Reverse University in Cleveland. Her brother Kevin became an Environmental Historian and worked as an assistant not only for his father but also for his father’s graduate students doing marmot research.
As for Karole, she became a dancer. When the wife of a ski instructor, a classical ballerina, agreed to give Karole ballet lessons in Crested Butte, it allowed her to maintain her practice over the summer. Karole soon began hiking to Ballet West in Aspen for summer intensive trainings. Back in Kansas, she studied at the studio of a George Balanchine-trained ballerina. As an adult, she founded her own dance company in New York City and has traveled the world performing. Her art has been heavily influenced by her scientific upbringing. Her use of time and space and the way of organizing the behavior of dancers on stage and the use of geometry in movement are based on ideas found in science. She created several dance productions on climate change and physics in collaboration with RMBL scientists Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Dr. John Harte and a production created in collaboration with Dr. Brian Greene of Columbia University.
Her father’s legacy lives on in the work of his colleagues and the lives of his children, whose formative years were shaped by an extraordinary place filled with extraordinarily intelligent people. Karole describes her father as one of the most singularly well-rounded persons she has ever known. Yet he was humble. He saw himself as a small part of the vast natural world and the great human experience.
But he was a giant whose enthusiasm was contagious to all who knew him or lived with him. As was his fascination with a particular furry mammal. “We all helped him trap marmots,” Karole says. “All of the kids.”
Karole Armitage, choreographer and director, is the Artistic Director of the New York-based Armitage Gone! Dance Company. She was rigorously trained in classical ballet and is renowned for pushing the boundaries to create contemporary works that blend dance, music, science, and the visual arts. Known as the “punk ballerina,” Armitage’s work is both esoteric and popular. She has choreographed Broadway productions, videos for Madonna and Michael Jackson, films for Merchant Ivory productions, a show for Cirque du Soleil, and the Fall/Winter 2020/2021 Marc Jacobs Fashion show. Her work at major European institutions began in the 1980s and continues today. She directed the ballet of Florence, Italy; directed the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Dance; and served as resident choreographer for the Ballet de Lorraine in Nancy, France. She has directed operas and created new dance productions for major houses in the U.S. and Europe from the Paris Opera Ballet to Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, The Boston Ballet, and The Boston Opera. She returned to NYC in 2004 to focus on her company, Armitage Gone! Dance, which performs in traditional theaters and non-traditional spaces such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She has collaborated with visual artists Brice Marden, Jeff Koons, David Salle, Karen Kilminik, and Philip Taaffe. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Kansas University in 2013 and a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University in 2016 to study Native American Plains Culture. Armitage is currently an MIT Media Lab Directors Fellow.