February 2 – Happy Woodchuck Day

Today’s Factismal: The woodchuck, or groundhog as it is often known, is the largest member of the squirrel family in North America.

If you are a fan of holidays, or just of silly strange movies, then you know that today is groundhog day. It is the day when the groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil (actually the sixteenth groundhog to have that name) is pulled out of his comfortable burrow and forced to predict if winter will end early. As you might guess, being awakened in the middle of a six month long nap does very little to aid Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications; he’s only been right about 39% of the time.

A woodchuck (also known as a groundhog) at the entrance to his burrow (Image courtesy Fairfax County Schools)

A woodchuck (also known as a groundhog) at the entrance to his burrow (Image courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

But even if woodchucks aren’t very good at predicting the end of winter, they are very good at a lot of other things such as digging, gnawing, swimming, and climbing trees. Of course, this comes as no surprise to the biologists as woodchucks are part of the squirrel family. Like their relatives, woodchucks have long teeth that are very good at gnawing the grasses and nuts which form a large part of their diet and like all squirrels, they also enjoy a nice grub or snail when they can get it. And, being the size of a teddy bear means that they eat a lot of food in order to store up fat for the winter.

A groundhog in his comfy burrow (Image courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

A groundhog in his comfy burrow (Image courtesy Fairfax County Public Schools)

Unlike the typical tree squirrel, woodchucks live in burrows that they excavate with their sharp front claws; this is why they are also called groundhogs. Their extensive digging can cause serious damage to farms and even houses by undermining foundations. Woodchucks typically build two sets of burrows during the year. A typical summer woodchuck burrow can be as long as a house and is usually built by several groundhogs that live in individual side burrows and a special chamber set aside for calls of nature. Summer burrows tend to be in open plains. A woodchuck’s winter burrow is built by one or two animals who dig deeper to escape the frost; these burrows are more commonly placed in wooded areas. Both the winter and the summer burrows are made more comfortable by lining them with dried grasses and leaves.

During the winter, woodchucks hibernate and live off of fat that they have stored up. The woodchuck will hide in its winter burrow and close the entrance with a plug of dirt before curling up and going into a deep sleep. During the hibernation, their pulse slows from 100 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute and their respiration drops to almost zero. But once the weather warms enough, typically in late February to early March, the woodchuck revives and heads back out to find a mate and build a summer burrow.

If you find groundhogs fascinating, then consider taking part in a BioBlitz (a day of observation and counting animals in an area):
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/projects/tahomaaudubon/nisquallybioblitz
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit/projects/beavercreek/bioblitz/
http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/program/bioblitz/?ar_a=1
http://www.biosurvey.ou.edu/bioblitz/BioBlitzvolunteer.html

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