Groundhog, woodchuck -- what's the difference?
Woodchuck and groundhog are common terms for the same
animal, the rodent with the scientific name of Marmota monax. Most closely
related to squirrels, woodchucks actually can climb trees and also swim.
What's so special about Feb. 2?
Celestially speaking, Groundhog Day on Feb. 2 is a
"cross-quarter" day, about halfway between the winter solstice in
December and the vernal equinox in March, and is celebrated in some cultures as
the midpoint of winter. It's not far from the time many groundhogs end their
hibernation anyway, around the second week of February.
What's going on in that burrow?
In the winter, not much. Groundhogs go into profound
hibernation, greatly reducing their metabolic rate, and their body temperature
drops to just a few degrees above ambient temperature. Because their
hibernaculum, the deepest portion of the burrow where they hibernate, is below
frost line, that produces a body temperature as low as 39-40 degrees F.
What's the wake-up call?
The groundhog's internal clock is believed to be affected by
annual changes in the amount of daylight. Hormonal responses to cyclic changes
in production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, are thought by some to be
the signal to wake up.
Why did groundhog fur coats go out of fashion?
Groundhog fur never was in vogue, partly because it is not
particularly thick and warm, and because the fur's grizzled grey-brown
appearance is more appealing to others of their species than to people.
Groundhog hairs are used for tying trout flies, such as the 'Chuck Caddis, and
early American Indians once used sturdy woodchuck hides for soles of moccasins.
What's for dinner?
Groundhogs in the wild eat succulent green plants, such as
dandelion greens, clover, plantain and grasses. They also are tempted by nearby
garden vegetables. At Cornell, they dine on Agway Woodchuck Chow, a similar
formulation to rabbit feed but in larger-sized pellets. Woodchucks binge and
purposefully put on weight in the summer, reaching their maximum mass in late
August. They become lethargic and prepare for hibernation in October. By
February, hibernating woodchucks have lost as much as half their body weight.
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could
About 700 pounds. Compared to beavers, groundhogs/woodchucks
are not adept at moving timber, although some will chew wood. (At Cornell,
woodchucks that gnaw their wooden nest boxes are given scraps of 2-by-4
lumber.) A wildlife biologist once measured the inside volume of a typical
woodchuck burrow and estimated that -- if wood filled the hole instead of dirt
-- the industrious animal would have chucked about 700 pounds' worth.
Click here to read about groundhog resistant plants you can plant around your home.
Sources: College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University;
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Mammals of the Eastern
United States, Second Edi tion, William J. Hamilton Jr. and John O. Whitaker
Last updated February 2, 2021