Polish your incisors and prep your shadows, it’s almost Groundhog Day.

1993's Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray

The groundhog, also known colloquially as a woodchuck, is a large, lowland rodent that shares a family with marmots and large ground squirrels. Marmota monax resides in the eastern United States and most of Canada; the tail of its range extends even into Alaska. The “lowland” descriptor makes the groundhog unique among marmots: most marmots live in rocky and elevated areas. 

These adorable critters have acquired a slew of nicknames, including whistlepig, groundpig, and the thickwood badger. The “monax” part of their scientific name comes from the Algonquin word for the animal, which means “digger.” Interestingly, the name “woodchuck,” strange for an animal that has nothing really to do with wood or chucking, comes from another term of  Algonquin or Narragansett origin. They also referred to the monax as a “wuchak.” How much wood could a wuchak chuck if a wuchak could chuck wood?

As referenced in the Algonquin etymology, groundhogs are fantastic diggers. They build extensive dens, excavating more than 350 pounds of dirt to create rooms that can range up to 25 feet in length. These dens are the lifeblood of the species. They rarely stray far from their locations; not only are they home, but they are a haven from any possible predation as well. 

A groundhog grabbing some yummies - photo by Susan Sam

In general, the groundhog is herbivorous. It survives mainly on grasses and various other vegetation. Their prominent teeth grow 1/16th an inch per week! They also can pound a full pound of vegetation a day. All that gnawing keeps their tooth length in equilibrium. The groundhog is also one of those rare animals that does not need to drink water to survive. They glean all they need from the vegetation they eat, supplemented by the incidental intake of dew or rain when they eat grasses.

They are also one of the few organisms that truly hibernates. Groundhogs often build specific dens below the frost line just for their winter slumber. This attribute, of course, ties in with the tradition of hauling a groundhog out of a long nap to forecast the weather on February 2.

Groundhog Day emerged from a Pennsylvania Dutch superstition. If the groundhog encounters clear weather and sees her own shadow on 2 February that, unintuitively, signals six more weeks of winter. If, instead, a dreary day prevents a shadow, spring is right around the corner. Apparently, this tradition started in German-speaking regions with a badger instead of a groundhog, but when you come to a new continent you gotta work with what you have. As with many calendar-based traditions, this one started with a religious tradition. On Candlemas – February 2 – clear weather meant more winter.

Punxsutawney Phil does not look happy to be hauled out in the middle of winter - photo by Chris Flook

The most famous prognosticator is Punxsutawney Phil, he of the small hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and the inspiration for the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. However, Phil is far from the only marmot reading the skies on the second day of February. We also have Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog, Dunkirk Dave,  Staten Island Chuck, and General Beauregard Lee. Here in Ohio we boast the lesser-known but just-as-accurate weather-critter called Buckeye Chuck.

You might find it hard to believe that no correlation between a groundhog’s meteorological prediction and the actual resulting weather has ever been scientifically displayed.

Groundhogs have, however, produced results in another scientific field: archaeology. The Ufferman site lies just north of Delaware, Ohio, mere miles from TMAC HQ. Archaeologists believe this location was a village of an ancient people known as the Cole Culture, which flourished sometime between 800 and 1300. Scientists have never excavated the site, though they have retrieved artifacts from it thanks to our cute digging friends. The site is situated upon a glacial esker, which is composed of sand and gravel. Groundhogs can’t get enough of burrowing in this wonderful medium. Because of their industrious work,  items associated with the Cole Culture have surfaced!

For many of us, the days of the past year might feel a lot like the film Groundhog Day. Where I sit today, those who put stock in the fortune-telling skills of the furry rodents might find a forecast of oncoming spring, as snow and clouds have filled the atmosphere for the past several days. But even if we get six more weeks of winter and even if the repetitive nature of socially-distant life continues ad nauseum, we can all find cheer by watching a video of baby groundhogs!

Further Reading and Exploration

Groundhog – National Geographic

Groundhogs Fact Sheet – PBS

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club – Official Website

Groundhog Day – visitPA

Ufferman Site

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