The groundhog, also known as the woodchuck or the mouse bear (because it sits upright like a miniature bear), first gained notoriety as a weather forecaster in 1886, when Clymer Freas, the editor of western Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, reported that local groundhogs had not seen their shadows that day, indicating an early spring.
This mythology gave rise to Punxsutawney Phil, the famous woodchuck weather monster, which in turn gave rise to Ground Hog Day and the widely held belief that Phil (and his eponymous successors down the generations) can foresee the continuation of winter.
Phil’s narrative is most likely based on European ideas that badgers and hedgehogs can deliver future signals; in the absence of those species in his area, old Clymer substituted the closest local animal to a badger or hedgehog.
What Do Groundhogs Eat, on the other hand, is much more than a meteorological rodent. It’s also a living, breathing creature.
Here are ten facts about this roly-poly rodent that you may not know:
- Groundhogs are one of the few mammals that can truly hibernate, gaining weight in the summer and sleeping for the majority of the winter.
- A woodchuck’s body temperature can drop from around 99 degrees to as low as 37 degrees while hibernating (Humans go into mild hypothermia when their body temperature drops a mere 3 degrees, lose consciousness at 82 degrees and face death below 70 degrees).
- A hibernating woodchuck’s heart rate drops from roughly 80 to 5 beats per minute.
- Breathing reduces from roughly 16 to as few as 2 breaths per minute.
- A woodchuck will lose no more than a fourth of its body weight during hibernation—150 days without eating—due to the energy saved by the decreased metabolism.
- During the summer, a groundhog can consume more than a pound of foliage in one sitting, comparable to a 150-pound guy devouring a 15-pound steak.
- Woodchucks grow upper and lower incisors that can survive wear and tear because they grow approximately a sixteenth of an inch per week to satisfy their voracious hunger.
- If properly aligned, a woodchuck’s upper and lower incisors grind away at each other with each bite, keeping them short; if not, they may miss one another and continue to grow until they resemble a wild boar’s tusks; if too long, a woodchuck’s upper incisors can impale the lower jaw, resulting in death.
- Woodchuck burrows, which the animals dig up to 6 feet deep, can run for 20 feet or more underground, with two entrances on average but as many as a dozen in some cases.
- Because the rotund little guys (a hefty woodchuck may tip the scales at 14 pounds just before hibernation) are too slow to escape most predators in a dead heat (the rodents have a top speed of only 8 mph, while a hungry fox may hit 25 mph), groundhogs use burrows as their primary means of evading enemies.
Although groundhogs aren’t the finest weather forecasters, they do emerge from their dens around early February. Males rouse themselves to walk around their 2- to 3-acre territory in pursuit of ladies’ burrows, which they will enter and spend the night in. According to research, no mating occurs at this time; the visits are likely only to help the animals get to know one another so they can go right to work breeding when they emerge for good in March. Except for females bearing young, who are usually born in early April, woodchucks remain solitary outside of the mating season.