The name groundhog is misleading; these creatures are actually rodents. More specifically, they are ground squirrels, which are collectively known as marmots. Groundhogs live in North America, across the northeastern United States and much of Canada.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order – Rodentia
Family – Sciuridae
Genus - Marmota
Species – M. monax
Common Name – Groundhog, Woodchuck, Whistlepig, Groundpig, Canada Marmot, Monax. Interestingly, the common name “Woodchuck” has nothing to do with wood, and is actually a corruption of the word “wuchak”, a word for the animal used by some Native American tribes.
Groundhogs are basically large squirrels. They can reach over two feet long, and their body is designed to be good at digging. They have short limbs, curved claws, and a spine that gives them a body shape closer to that of a mole than other squirrels. The groundhog also lacks the long, bushy tail of most squirrels, as this would get in the way of its burrow digging behavior.
Groundhogs reach maturity within one or two years. They breed after hibernation, and mating pairs stay together during the gestation period, which usually lasts a month. Babies are born blind and without fur, and remain with the mother in the burrow until they are able to see and grow fur.
Groundhogs live in fairly cold environments, so they dig burrows to have a place to stay warm. These burrows can be quite extensive, with multiple levels. They use these burrows for sleeping, raising their young, and hibernating. From fall to spring, groundhogs hibernate, much like bears. To prepare, they will build up fat within their bodies to sustain themselves during their long sleep. They’ll typically retreat to their burrows in October, and emerge again in March or April when food becomes more abundant.
Groundhogs eat grass, berries and other vegetation, though they occasionally eat insects or small animals. They also love to eat crops planted by farmers, and are considered a nuisance to those who work in agriculture.
Many consider the groundhog a pest, and thus they have a fairly contentious relationship with humans. They annoy farmers by eating their crops, and their intricate burrows can cause damage to yards and fields. However, groundhogs actually provide some benefit, as their burrows help bring subsoil to the surface level, and abandoned burrows often become homes to animals like foxes, rabbits and skunks, which feed on insect and rodent pests.
However, in some areas groundhogs are also held in high esteem, mostly relating to the February 2nd celebration known as Groundhog Day, a festival in which a chosen groundhog is said to predict the extension of winter or the arrival of spring. According to the folklore, if the animal sees its shadow, it portends six more weeks of winter.
These festivals are held in several northern cities in North America, including Punxatawney, Pennsylvania; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; Staten Island, New York; and Wiarton, Ontario. Each of these towns has its own celebrity groundhog, the most well-known of which is Punxatawney Phil. The origin of this festival may have its roots in the German tradition of Candlemas Day, when a badger or hedgehog would predict the coming season. Since there were no hedgehogs or badgers in the areas where early settlers from Europe established themselves in the United States, there were none of these animals, so the groundhog became a sort of stand-in.
Groundhogs are a “Least Concern” species, and are quite abundant in their range. Potential threats include hunting and extermination as pests, though neither of these currently poses an imminent danger to the groundhog’s existence.