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It's Their Moment To Shine: 5 Things About Groundhogs

It’s Groundhog Day, and that means it’s time for our annual celebration of groundhogs. Did Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow and curse us to six more weeks of winter? Or will Phil's missing shadow bless us with an early spring?

(Photo via Shutterstock)

The legend of Punxsutawney Phil gets a lot of attention every year, but whether he sees his shadow really has more to do whether it is sunny or cloudy on February 2.

While groundhogs don't have any special skills for predicting when winter will end, they are interesting creatures. They are rodents, more specifically a type of rodent called a marmot. Marmots are most closely related to squirrels, which makes groundhogs a sort of large ground squirrel.

Interested in these creatures? Here are five more fun facts.

Phil has been predicting the weather for a long time

The world's most famous groundhog — or, rather, only famous groundhog other than the Forest Preserve's mascot Willy — has been predicting either an early spring or six more weeks of winter for more than a century. The legend dates back to 1886, when the newspaper in the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney first published a report that local groundhogs had not seen their shadow on February 2.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club would like you to believe there is just one Phil. But groundhogs have a maximum lifespan of just six years in the wild and possibly as many as 15 years in captivity. Still, though, the club is mum on just how many groundhogs have played the role of Phil through the years.

They are one of our area's few true hibernators

Groundhogs are one of the few animals that are true hibernators. They enter into a state of deep sleep in late fall and remain hibernating for about three months, emerging in late winter.

While hibernating, a groundhog's body temperature drops from about 99 degrees Fahrenheit to as low as 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Their heartbeat slows from about 80 beats per minute to just five beats per minute, and their breathing slows from about 16 breaths per minute to as few as two breaths per minute.

During this deep sleep, their metabolic rate is much lower than while they are active, which means they aren't as reliant on their fat stores. However, groundhogs lose about 25 percent of their body weight during hibernation.

In the case of Punxsutawney Phil, he doesn't naturally emerge from his hibernation each year for his special day. Instead, he is awoken just for the occasion.

They have big appetites

If you're going to sleep the winter away, you're going to need to make up for it by eating a lot during spring, summer and fall. Groundhogs have been known to eat 1 pound or more of vegetation at one time. One pound of food may not seem like much, but it would be like a 150-pound person eating 15 pounds of food in one sitting.

Groundhogs mostly eat plant matter. Their preferred foods are clover, alfalfa and dandelion. They also eat leaves, bark, bird eggs and insects.

They go by many names

What you call a groundhog others may call a woodchuck. That's right. Groundhogs and woodchucks are the same creature. And those are just two of the many names they go by, although those two are the most common.

Some people call these creatures whistle-pigs because they make a high-pitched whistling sound when startled. Other nicknames include land beaver and mouse bear, because they look like small bears when sitting up.

Have you ever heard this tongue twister: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Well, woodchucks don’t actually chuck wood. Instead, the term woodchuck is derived from the Algonquian name for the animals, which was "wuchak."

Their homes are elaborate

Animals live in all sorts of spaces, and groundhogs have some of the more elaborate animal homes that we see. They live in burrows dug underground, and they can be a complex system of tunnels and chambers.

These burrows can be from 8 feet to 66 feet long, and they can have several different levels. The burrows usually have more than one entrance and exit, and different chambers in the burrows are used for different purposes. They may have one sleeping chamber they use during summer and another one they use for hibernating. They even have their own bathrooms, with chambers they use just to eliminate waste.


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