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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Groundhogs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Happy Groundhog Day! Today is the day each year in which we look towards a giant rodent to find out how much more winter we’ll have to endure. This year, we probably know the answer: winter hasn’t been very wintery, even for Los Angeles. Which, well, isn’t ever really wintery at all.

According to tradition, the groundhog (Marmota monax) peeks out of its burrow today, and checks to see if it has a shadow. If sunny enough for a shadow, the groundhog will return to the comfort of its burrow, and winter will continue for an additional six weeks.

In honor of the holiday, I’ve rounded up seven things about groundhogs that you probably didn’t know. One for each extra week of winter we’re going to have, plus one extra for good luck.

1. A groundhog by any other name. Groundhogs are also variously referred to as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, or land-beavers. The name whistle-pig comes from the fact that, when alarmed, a groundhog will emit a high-pitched whistle as a warning to the rest of his or her colony. The name woodchuck has nothing to do with wood. Or chucking. It is derived from the Algonquian name for the critters, wuchak.

2. Home sweet home. Both male and female groundhogs tend to occupy the same territories year after year. For females, there is very little overlap between home ranges except for the late spring and early summer, as females try to expand their territories. During this time, their ranges may overlap by as much as ten percent. Males have non-overlapping territories as well, though any male territory coincides with one to three mature females’ territories.

3. Baby groundhogs! Infants stick around home for only about two to three months after being born in mid-April, and then they disperse and leave mom’s burrow. However, a significant proportion – thirty five percent – of females stick around longer, leaving home just after their first birthdays, right before mom’s new litter arrives.

4. Family values. In general, groundhog social groups consist of one adult male and two adult females, each with an offspring from the previous breeding season (usually female), and the current litter of infants. Interactions within a female’s group are generally friendly. But interactions between female groups – even when those groups are shared by the same adult male – are rare and aggressive. Even though daddy woodchuck doesn’t live at home, from the breeding season through the first month of the infants’ lives, he visits each of his female groups every day.

5. Medical models. Groundhogs happen to be a good animal model for the study of hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. In fact, if infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus, the animal will always go on to develop liver cancer, making them useful for the study both of liver cancer and of hepatitis B.

6. Look up! Though they spend most of their time on or under the ground, groundhogs can also climb trees.

7. Eskimo kisses. Groundhogs greet each other with an odd variation of the eskimo kiss: one groundhog approaches and touches his or her nose to the mouth of the second groundhog. Or, as scientists call it, they make “naso-oral contact.”

ResearchBlogging.orgMeier, P. (1992). Social organization of woodchucks (Marmota monax) Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 31 (6) DOI: 10.1007/BF00170606

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/April King.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. candide 9:37 am 02/2/2012

    One thing I did know – they cannot predict weather.

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  2. 2. cpikas 10:20 am 02/2/2012

    Groundhogs in trees? I’m skeptical. There are tons of groundhogs around here and I’ve never heard of that. I looked up the linked article and searched it for tree with no results… where did you get that?

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  3. 3. QuantumQualifax 10:50 am 02/2/2012

    I already knew that groundhogs climb trees, and that they’re referred to as woodchucks. Therefore, the article describes only 5 things I didn’t know about groundhogs.
    Boy do I feel cheated.

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  4. 4. Jason G. Goldman in reply to Jason G. Goldman 12:50 pm 02/2/2012

    @CPikas: Here’s some confirmation, via Nat Geo.

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  5. 5. busterggi 3:37 pm 02/2/2012

    Here’s an 8th fact – a male groundhog can run ALMOST as fast as a 30 y/o man. But now that I’m pushing 58 I wouldn’t want to have to try it again.

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  6. 6. bigbopper 3:47 pm 02/2/2012

    @quantum: OK, here are two more. Groundhog in German is “Murmeltier”, in French “Marmotte d’Amerique”.


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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 4:39 pm 02/2/2012

    Many years ago, still new to the States, I interviewed for a tech job at the vet school at NCSU. Apparently they do research on woodchucks quite a lot there, so the job would include quite a lot of husbandry of them. The woman who interviewed me kept talking about woodchucks, but I had no idea what kind of animal that was. In the end, I decided to try something in hope it would work and help it clarify…I asked her what the Latin name for woodchuk was. She said “Marmota monax”. I said “Oh, cool, mrmot!”. Yup, that’s how you call it in Serbian (I did not get the job).

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  8. 8. hrohwer 5:14 pm 02/2/2012

    I’d like to know what colors these creatures come in.

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  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 5:23 pm 02/2/2012

    It is “mrmot” in Serbian, pronounced “mehr-mot”.
    JGG: Heh, that’s what I get for thinking that I spotted a typo! I’ve gone back and restored it in the first comment.

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  10. 10. Unksoldr 5:39 pm 02/2/2012

    I can testify to ground hogs climbing trees, I’ve seen one up a tree I was very young at the time and couldn’t believe it myself.

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