groundhog Facts

Groundhog PortraitPortrait of a Groundhog

The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, is a husky, well-furred rodent common across much of North America. The groundhog is a type of marmot, which are several species of large ground squirrels.

Most of the marmot species live in mountainous areas, but groundhogs live in the plains and valleys, usually where wooded areas adjoin grasslands. 

The groundhog is the only rodent with a day named after it. February 2nd is groundhog day, and tradition has it that if the hibernating groundhog climbs out of his burrow and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter, if he doesn't see his shadow, spring will come soon.

Originally, Christians in Europe observed Candlemas day, where clergy blessed candles and distributed them to give hope in the dark of winter. It was believed that if the sun was strong, and the candles weren't needed, winter would be long and hard, but if the day was dark and the candles were helpful, spring was around the corner. Candlemas day was brought to the Pennsylvania area by German settlers in the 1700's.

But how did groundhogs get involved? Well one theory involves male groundhogs who often leave their burrows in the middle of winter to patrol their territory, and then go back underground to continue their hibernation. This activity may have coincided with the German tradition, and Groundhog day was born.

groundhog in burrow

The groundhog is a solitary animal who lives underground in a large, elaborate burrow, also called a sette. These underground mazes may be 80 feet long, with several levels and multiple entrances. Most adult groundhogs dig 3 or 4 separate settes on their territory. Groundhogs are very wary, and will dive back into their sette when possible danger approaches, but if cornered, they will aggressively defend themselves with their huge incisors and razor sharp claws.

Averaging only about 10 pounds and 20 inches long, groundhogs have still been known to stave off bobcats, coyotes, and many a family dog, although they are the staple diet of most North American predators, particularly foxes.

The groundhog is mostly a vegetarian that prefers greenery, fruits and vegetables, but will supplement with insects. Their appetite is legendary, and they can be extremely destructive towards crops, capable of eating half their own weight in groceries in one night. Despite being considered a pest, the groundhog still has it's own holiday,  and Groundhog day is still a beloved tradition.

groundhog science
groundhog animal stats
lemur info

groundhog, woodchuck or gopher?

By LeonardoWeiss (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsgopher
groundsquirrelsgroundsquirrel

So what's the difference between groundhogs, woodchucks and gophers? Well, all of the animals in this discussion are rodents. But some are from the family Scuridae, which are squirrel-like rodents, and some are from the family Geomyidae, which are beaver-like rodents.

Marmots are ground dwelling members of the squirrel family, Sciuridae. They are of the genus marmota, characterized by thick, powerful bodies, flat heads and strong claws.

There are about 15 species of marmots found around the world, many of whom inhabit mountainous areas. The groundhog is one species of marmot which is found in North America, and lives in lower elevations, meadows and grasslands. So, not all marmots are groundhogs, but all groundhogs are marmots

The groundhog is known by many names, including woodchuck, and whistlepig. The term woodchuck doesn't have anything to do with wood, it is simply believed to be a modern interpretation of the Native American word for the animal. So, woodchucks and groundhogs are the same animal.

Gophers are not in the squirrel family, they are in an entirely different family of rodents known as Geomyidae, which includes the beaver. There are about 35 species of gopher, all found in Central and North America. Gophers are considerably smaller than groundhogs at only about 2 or 3 pounds.

Unlike groundhogs, who spend lots of their time above ground eating the leaves and fruits of plants, gophers rarely come out of their burrows. They feed on the underground parts of plants, such as the roots and tubers. Gophers also have cheek pouches, like hamsters, that they can store food in and empty for later. So gophers and groundhogs are different animals.

Wait, we're not done yet!

The name gopher is also commonly applied to other squirrels like the Richardson ground squirrel. These tan colored squirrels are also smaller than groundhogs, and leaner in body type.

The Richardson ground squirrel is common across much of the Northern U.S., living in burrows on open grasslands. They are similar in appearance and lifestyle to prairie dogs, which are in yet another genus.

They are called gophers on a regular basis, and most people familiar with the animal know exactly what is being referenced, so from a common language standpoint, they are considered gophers, but scientifically, only members of the family Geomyidae are gophers. So ground squirrels and gophers are different animals.

Ultimately, all squirrel-type animals that live in burrows, have buck teeth, and eat seeds while standing up on their haunches are regularly referred to as groundhogs, but only one species of marmot is actually "the" groundhog.


Alpine marmotAlpine marmot

groundhog lifestyle

groundhoggroundhog

Groundhogs are active during the day, and feed mostly in the early morning and late afternoon. They spend lots of time mending and expanding their settes, and eating a variety of vegetation, supplemented by insects, snails and grubs.

One of the things that distinguishes groundhogs from other marmots is that they are generally solitary animals. While most marmots live in small family groups, the groundhog is a loner, and even a bit aniti-social.

They defend their burrows and territories from other groundhogs in loud squabbles which include hopping about, swishing their tails and chattering their teeth. Even baby groundhogs leave their mothers rather quickly to find their own space, setting off at the tender age of 5 or 6 weeks.

Even though they live alone, groundhogs will use a shrill, whistle-like warning call, which gives them the common name whistlepig, and alerts all the groundhogs in the area of any danger, such as a low-flying hawk.

The groundhog is one of the few animals that enter a state of true hibernation. It retreats to it's burrow in late fall and goes into a deep sleep during which it will not eat. The groundhog's body temperature drops from 98 degrees Fahrenheit, to as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's heart rate slows from 80 beats a minute to as few as 4 beats a minute. Hibernation may last as long as 5 months, but will include periods of arousal, during which the groundhog may relieve itself, and even step outside for a bit. When the groundhog finally emerges from hibernation, it's body is thin and depleted. 

During the spring and summer, the groundhog must replenish itself, but also prepare for another long winter. They have a special type of body fat known as brown adipose tissue, that forms around their brain and other organs, providing extra heat. They are ravenous eaters because of this, and can destroy rows of crops at a time. In addition to eating crops, the long burrows they dig can disrupt growing plants from below, and destabilize the foundations of small buildings and sheds.

Groundhogs are shot at, trapped and poisoned in farming communities. They are also standard fare for dozens of animals like foxes, mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, but they are vital to much of the North American ecosystem.


groundhog reproduction

groundhog babies

The only time groundhogs socialize is during mating season, in early spring, but many males will actually leave their burrows in February and March to visit the dens of females in their territory.

They may cruise around for a day or two, spending a few minutes at a time getting acquainted, and then go back to their burrows for another few weeks of hibernation. This unusual activity, may well be the inspiration for the whole "Groundhog day" tradition, but it actually serves as a bit of a pre-courtship, which speeds up the whole process come spring.

The idea is that groundhog youngsters need allot of time to get ready for their first winter, and timing mating just right is critical for the survival of the species. Too early, and their might not be enough forage for them as they wean, too late and they won't be strong enough to last the winter.

Nevertheless, when spring comes around, males may still fight over the attention of local females. They will whistle and shriek and grab each other by the scruff, shaking mightily. Fights are not usually serious, though, and mating is usually a quick event as well.

The female is pregnant for about 32 days and gives birth to an average of 3 to 5 babies, called pups. The pups are only a few ounces when born. They are hairless, with closed eyes and ears, and are completely helpless.

The new pups grow very rapidly, and are weaned at about 4 weeks. They may move just a few yards away from the family sette, and dig their own burrow at just 5 weeks old. By the time they are 3 months old, they have moved off and are on their own.

groundhog mother and babies

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a few more groundhog facts

groundhog
  • The groundhog is also known as the woodchuck
  • The groundhogs burrow is called a sette (pronounced set)
  • When groundhogs hibernate their hearts may beat only 4 times a minute
  • Other animals such as skunks, use groundhog burrows as their home
  • Groundhogs use a high-pitched whislte as a warning
  • Groundhogs loose over 30% of their body weight during hibernation
  • The groundhog is the only rodent with it's own day!


   Groundhog     - animalstats -
MALE FEMALE YOUNG SOCIAL UNIT
he-chuck she-chuck kit, pup, cub solitary
GROUP HOME HABITAT FAVORITE FOOD
repetition,
coterie
U.S.A., Canada prarie, woods flowers
TOPSPEED ENDANGERED AVG WEIGHT AVG LENGTH
10 mph no  8-12 pounds 16-25 inches
ESTRUS GESTATION BIRTH LENGTH BIRTHWEIGHT
1 x year  32 days 4  inches 8 ounces
RAISED BY # OF YOUNG AT BIRTH DIG
mother  3-5 average neked, blind 2 weeks
WEANED INDEPENDENT MATURITY LIFESPAN
4 weeks 5 - 8 weeks 1 year 6-12 years



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