As Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his slumber on Groundhog Day 2011, scores of Americans will watch eagerly as the little ground-dwelling furball predicts the demise or extension of winter. More than just a rodent, some believe he can match wits with Mark Mancuso or Jim Cantore, two of cable’s most respected weathermen. Aside from the creature’s supposed weather forecasting abilities — in reality, those abilities aren’t so remarkable; Phil is only correct 40 percent of the time — there are a few distinguishing characteristics that make the groundhog one of nature’s marvels.
If he could, a woodchuck would chuck 700 pounds of wood
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are undoubtedly persistent, hardworking animals, despite their propensity for taking prolonged slumbers. Although they’re not known for moving wood, one wildlife biologist calculated that one is capable of moving 700 pounds of timber based on the volume of dirt it removes from each of its burrows. Impressive considering the average woodchuck — the more appropriate name in this case — weighs just 13 pounds.
Groundhogs’ body temperatures drop to 39 or 40 degrees F during hibernation
During their hibernation period in which their metabolism drops drastically, groundhogs’ body temperatures fall to just above ambient temperature. That’s about a 60-degree drop from their temperature of 97 to 99 degrees during the rest of the year when they’re awake to burrow and forage. In comparison, humans face dire health problems when their core temperatures drop to 95 degrees from the normal of about 98.6 degrees.
Groundhogs lose up to half of their body weight during hibernation
Not a bad thing considering they eat one-third of their body weight per day during the late summer, accumulating about a half-inch layer of fat. By October, they become lethargic and ready to hibernate, eventually shedding the excess fat during the winter. Who wouldn’t love to lose a significant amount of weight while they sleep, especially in the winter?
Groundhogs take one breath every six minutes during hibernation
Because their body essentially shuts down during hibernation, fewer breaths are needed for groundhogs to receive appropriate amounts of oxygen. Each day, one groundhog takes about 240 breaths while sleeping, a significantly lower total than the more than 20,000 breaths a human takes per day. What’s more, a groundhog’s heart beats just four times per minute and 5,760 times per day. The human heart beats more than 100,000 times per day. Of course, we don’t get to hibernate, unfortunately.
Groundhogs provide shelter for their enemies
Groundhogs dig burrows with the intention of dwelling in them for safety. Solitary and territorial creatures, they’ll aggressively defend their homes from intruders using their large incisors and front claws. But when they’re ready to find new places to stay, they’ll abandon their burrows, leaving new homes for their predators, such as weasels, to claim. Like Sun Tzu or Michael Corleone said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
One Groundhog, Wiarton Willie, lived 22 years
That’s anywhere from seven to 11 times the average lifespan of a wild groundhog. Willie lived in captivity in Wiarton, Ontario, so he didn’t have to dodge hungry predators such as foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, weasels, owls and hawks. His long, accomplished life was followed by a less-than-glamorous death — he was found dead and decomposed two days before Groundhog Day in 1999 and was replaced, unbeknownst to the public, by a stuffed tuxedo-wearing groundhog. Public outrage ensued after the imposter was revealed in a coffin and discovered not to be the true Willie.
Groundhogs once uncovered an ancient Native American archeological site: Who knew that groundhogs have an appreciation for anthropology and archeology? Without any assistance from human archeologists, they unearthed pottery, bits of stone and animals bones in what became known as the Ufferman Site in Delaware, Ohio. The area, which was inhabited by the Cole Culture during the Woodland period, features loose, easy-to-dig soil that groundhogs prefer, making it the perfect place for them to dwell. The Ufferman Site garnered recognition in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The name “woodchuck” has nothing to do with chucking wood
As we’ve already established, groundhogs are also known as woodchucks. But, contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with their supposed wood-chucking ability or preference for woodland regions. Actually, the name derives from wuchak, the Algonquian name for the animal. More specifically, it comes from the Algonquian-speaking Cree Indians, who populated the US from Lake Superior westward and Canada from the north and west of Lake Superior.
Groundhogs whistle for mating calls and as a signal for trouble
So how do groundhogs manage not to scare off their prospective mates? Common sense dictates that women don’t like to be whistled at, right? Perhaps that’s why groundhogs are also known as “whistle pigs.” This sounds like a question for Jack Hanna or possibly the Pickup Artist.
Groundhogs are essentially germ and plague resistant
Like many other rodents, groundhogs have been adept at long-term survival, and their cleanliness is a major contributing factor. For example, they construct different chambers in their dwellings for different purposes — sometimes uncleanly — including one for using the bathroom, one for giving birth and one for sleeping. As a result, insects and germs pretty much avoid groundhogs, which rarely suffer from the widespread diseases contracted by other animals.