Marmots and Maps

This article describes how cartographers (map designers) at the Swiss Federal Office of Topography (Swisstopo) have been hiding covert illustrations inside of Switzerland’s official maps for decades.

According to Lorenz Hurni, professor of cartography at ETH Zurich, these illustrations are part inside joke, part coping mechanism. Cartographers are “quite meticulous, really high-precision people,” he says. Their entire professional life is spent at the magnification level of a postage stamp. To sustain this kind of concentration, Hurni suspects that they eventually “look for something to break out of their daily routine.”

Maps by renowned Swisstopo are state-of-the-art, creating and maintaining them has become a highly technical process, so it’s lovely to find these personal touches hidden in the final products. It reminds me of the “easter eggs” in software programs, or the signatures of the creators of the original Macintosh – on the inside of the computer.

Look at the illustration examples in the article. The spider is right near the Eiger, one of the most famous mountains in Switzerland, and it remained undetected for years!

But it’s the marmot I love the most. Behold this photograph of four marmots, which I shot back in 2009 on Bundalp, Switzerland.

I have had a weak spot for these little furry creatures since I was a kid. You can find them when hiking in the Swiss Alps, in summer and autumn. However, when out and about, the groups of marmots have sentinels that watch for dangers, mainly birds of prey, and of course humans. So you need to approach their locations really, really carefully, and from the right direction against the wind – if they detect you, you hear a sharp whistle, and all of them are gone in a second or two, hiding in their dwellings underground. Often you only hear the whistle, and you know that you must have been close to a group of them, but never even see one. To this day I can hear that sharp whistle in my mind.

  • Picture credit: the marmot on the map is from the quoted article.