Thick wood badger, woodchuck, land beaver, Monax, whistle-pig, and Phil. These words may seem a bit disjointed but they all have one thing in common: the groundhog.
Groundhogs are rotund burrowing rodents that are known for their destructive behavior and distinctive burrowing habits.
They’re also well-known for being one of the only animals to truly hibernate throughout the winter months. To do this, they focus on fattening up using vegetables and plants during the year and then using this energy to outlast the cold.
These furry critters are often seen as a farmer’s worst nightmare thanks to their penchant for eating human crops such as corn and carrots. Yet they are also happy to coexist with other life and go about their day in peace.
One thing is for sure, there’s no other creature that even remotely compares to groundhogs. If you’re curious about these little critters, here are 5 fun facts about groundhogs for you to sink your teeth into.
1. They’re Part of the Squirrel Family
Did you know that these adorable creatures are a beloved part of the squirrel family? If not, you’re not alone!
Yes, it’s true. The groundhog, or Marmota monax, is a rodent in the Sciuridae family. These animals belong to the group of huge ground squirrels more commonly known as marmots.
Groundhogs happen to be the largest member of the squirrel family with a typical groundhog weighing in at anywhere from 5 pounds early in the year to 13 to 14 pounds just before hibernation. And, from the top of their head to the tip of their tail, these creatures can grow to be up to 34 inches long!
Groundhogs appear to be a pretty far cry from the tree climbers we’re all familiar with, largely because of their size — oh, and the fact that they tend to spend the majority of their time dwelling in underground burrows.
Yet despite their larger size, groundhogs do have a few similarities to their distant squirrel cousins. Notably, when they’re not hibernating, they are pretty active creatures that are quite adept at swimming and climbing trees.
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Like squirrels, the Marmota monax generally have a pretty wide geographic range and actively inhabit quite a few different ecosystems.
As a result, they are the most widely distributed marmot species in North America with a range that stretches as far south as northern Alabama all the way to northern Canada!
Overall, the majority of groundhogs reside in the central and eastern parts of the United States, although you can also find them in states like Alaska.
They tend to settle down near an open field on the edge of a woodland or forest where they have the space to begin constructing their underground burrows. Again, you might also see them climbing trees if it’s the right time of year!
2. They Have Many Unique Features
Groundhogs have a dense gray undercoat and a longer outer coat that comes in many colors. Some of these creatures have fur that ranges from grey to dark brown or reddish-brown. They also have black or dark brown fur around their feet and tail.
Some other groundhogs even have white fur located around their nose!
Many groundhogs have white-tipped guard hairs covering their body which are useful to protect against abrasions and moisture and often give the creatures a more “frosted” appearance.
The groundhog is specifically characterized by its short yet powerfully muscular limbs that are designed for digging up, a heavy-set and low-slung body, and a tail that measures roughly six inches long.
When a groundhog stands upright on its hind legs, they are often said to resemble a small bear!
During the warmer and more active seasons, a groundhog can pack away an impressive amount of food. They often consume over one pound of vegetation in a single sitting, much like a 160-pound man scarfing down a 16-pound steak.
To accommodate such a hearty appetite, groundhogs grow strong upper and lower incisors. These can withstand lots of wear and tear as they are constantly growing at a rate of around one-sixteenth of an inch every week (1.6 millimeters). They must also wear their teeth down by chewing.
If their teeth are properly aligned, a groundhog’s upper and lower incisors will grind away at each other after every bite. This keeps them pretty short.
When a groundhog’s teeth aren’t in good working order, they may continue growing until they resemble something similar to the tusks of a wild boar. If they grow to be too long, a groundhog’s upper incisors can eventually impale the lower jaw which may result in a fatality!
3. They Cannot Predict the Weather
Groundhogs were once thought to predict the weather. Yet, as great as these creatures may be, and as many talents as they may possess, they are not clairvoyants!
The legend stemming from the Pennsylvania Dutch was that groundhogs once possessed the ability to predict the weather. The roots of this relatively light-hearted tradition span centuries and oceans.
It’s derived from the superstition that if a groundhog emerges from a burrow on the second day of February and can see its shadow because of clear weather, it will retreat and winter will continue for another six weeks.
If the groundhog does not or cannot see its shadow due to cloudiness, it was once said that spring was to arrive early.
The American version of the legend was originally based on badgers and beavers but when settlers made a home in Western Pennsylvania, they weren’t able to find any. The groundhog was a close match and so they opted to use them instead.
A local newspaper called the Punxsutawney Spirit published the first-ever report of a groundhog not being able to see its shadow in 1886. This means there would be an early spring.
From then on, Groundhog Day became an annual tradition in the US. To this day, it is held on February 2nd every year.
In fact, these creatures have an increasingly important place in American culture, with the whimsical, weird, and wonderful tradition of Groundhog Day being celebrated all across the nation.
One of the largest Groundhog Day celebrations occurs in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where the furry, semi-mythical weather prognosticator, a groundhog called Punxsutawney Phil (hence the nickname “Phil”), appears and makes predictions about the early or late start of spring.
4. They Are Talented Architects
It’s no secret that groundhogs are extremely intelligent animals. They possess the ability to understand social behavior, form complex social networks and kinship with their young, and work well with others to find a solution to tasks such as burrowing.
Groundhogs can also understand and communicate threats from a predator to the rest of their colony via a high-pitched whistle, hence the nickname “whistle pig.” These creatures are known to stand upright on their hind legs, wide awake, and on the hunt for potential predators.
What’s most impressive about the groundhog, however, is their ability to build impressive homes. This is also arguably the most recognizable trait of the groundhog.
Groundhog burrows are often dug up to 6 feet deep and 50 feet long. In these spaces, groundhogs can meander underground for around 20 feet or even more. They also usually feature two entrances but it’s not uncommon for some burrows to have almost a dozen!
The burrows are pretty elaborate and usually have multiple levels and rooms. A single groundhog can shift almost 700 pounds of dirt when they are building a burrow. They will also use vegetation to block the entrances to their burrows to retain heat.
Groundhogs use burrows as a primary way to evade their enemies. As they are generally pretty rotund creatures, they are far too slow to escape the majority of their predators. Groundhogs have a general top speed of around 8 mph, while hungry foxes may hit a top speed of 25 mph.
Typically, groundhogs have a winter burrow in the woods and a more open burrow in grassy areas for warmer weather. They keep their space tidy swapping out the nesting materials found inside every now and then.
5. They Are True Hibernators
What It Means
When one of these furry creatures commits to hibernating, they truly commit! During this time, they typically eat so much food that they gain enough fat to last throughout the winter. This is a pretty impressive feat.
Groundhogs are one of the very few animals that can be classed as true hibernators, rapidly gaining fat during the warmer seasons and then sleeping through the three-month cold period starting in late fall. They’ll wake up when it’s still relatively cold.
As temperatures drop, the days get shorter, and plants start to become dormant for the winter, a groundhog's body will release a hormone that guides them into hibernation.
These little guys will consume nearly a pound of food every day during the fall to help build up their fat stores. Their diet consists mainly of herbs, grass, and plants like daisies and dandelions. (Yes, they also consume tree bark on occasion, as we expect all woodchucks to do).
They will then dig a deep burrow that will be lined with twigs or grass to make a warm, safe, and comfortable nest for their long nap.
Groundhogs will not wake up to eat during this period which means that their bodies, which have continued to reduce nutrition needs throughout hibernation, will feed on the layer of fat that they have built up in the summer and the fall.
During a period of hibernation—approximately 150 days without actively eating—a groundhog will lose no more than a fourth of its body weight due to the energy that has been saved by the lower metabolism.
While in hibernation, a groundhog’s body temperature can drop anywhere from 99 degrees Fahrenheit to a lower figure of 37. The heart rate of a hibernating groundhog generally slows from around 80 to 100 beats per minute to just 5.
In addition, their breathing will typically slow down anywhere from around 16 breaths per minute to as little as 2.
That concludes 5 fun facts about the adorably rotund groundhog! Now you’ve finished reading through these facts, we hope you have a better understanding of groundhogs and how they live. We also hope you’ve learned something new about these incredibly captivating critters!