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All Things Ground Hog.
Information and pictures on Ground Hogs.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.

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The groundhog (Marmota monax), also known as the woodchuck, land beaver, or whistlepig, is a rodent of the family Sciuridae, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Most marmots, such as yellow-bellied and hoary marmots, live in rocky and mountainous areas, but the woodchuck is a lowland creature. It is widely distributed in North America and common in the northeastern and central United States. In the west it is found only in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, and northern Washington.

DescriptionGround Hogs
The woodchuck Marmota monax - sometimes called groundhog - is a rodent and belongs to the large group of mammals Rodentia, which includes squirrels, prairie dogs, and chipmunks. Within this large group the woodchuck is considered one of the marmots.

Among North American rodents, only beavers and porcupines are larger than the marmots. Woodchucks are stocky little animals with a flattened head. They commonly weigh 2 to 4 kg, and large ones may be heavier in the autumn. They measure 40 to 65 cm total length, including a short bushy tail about 15 cm long. Fur color varies from place to place and between individual animals. It ranges from yellowish to dark reddish brown, with an intermediate brown color being the most common shade. The fur is usually grizzled in appearance because of light-colored tips on the hairs. The belly fur is commonly straw-colored and the feet black.

Woodchucks are occasionally found with melanistic or albino fur. The fur of melanistic specimens is completely black. Albinos, on the other hand, have no color in their fur at all, and even their eyes lack pigmentation, merely showing a pinkish tinge from blood vessels near the surface. Being white, they are conspicuous, and usually fall easily to predators.

Because woodchucks are burrowing mammals, their feet have sturdy claws and their legs are thick and strong. Their forefeet, the principal ones used for digging, each have four well developed claws, and the hind feet have five. They escape from enemies by diving into burrows, which may account for the fact that their top running speed does not exceed 15 km per hour.

A close relative of the woodchuck’s, the hoary marmot or whistler, lives in the mountains of western North America, from Washington, Idaho, and Montana northward into Yukon and Alaska. It inhabits tundra, alpine Ground Hogs meadows, and rock slides in mountains. Two other marmots, very closely related to the hoary marmot, but differing from it in color, live only on high portions of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. The rockchuck, or yellow-bellied marmot, found from California, Texas, and New Mexico to British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, is another close woodchuck relative. Where the woodchuck is brownish, this somewhat smaller cousin tends to be yellowish. It favors rockier country and higher elevations (over 3 000 m) than the woodchuck, but it is also found on agricultural land in foothills and valleys.

Scientists recognize as many as nine varieties or subspecies of woodchuck, mainly based on subtle differences in color or skull characteristics.

Anatomy and behavior
The groundhog is the largest sciurid in its geographical range, typically measuring 40 to 65 cm (17 to 26 in) long (including a 15 cm tail) and weighing 2 to 4 kg (4.5 to 9 pounds). In areas with fewer natural predators and large quantities of alfalfa, groundhogs can grow to 80 cm (32 in) and 14 kg (30 lb). Groundhogs are well adapted for digging, with short but powerful limbs and curved, thick claws. The spinal structure is curved similarly to a mole's rather than to other sciurids'. The tail is only about one-fourth of body length, much shorter than that of other sciurids. Suited to their temperate habitat, groundhogs are covered with two coats of fur: a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded guard hairs that gives the groundhog its distinctive "frosted" appearance. Like other sciurids, groundhogs have exceptionally dense cerebral bones, allowing them to survive direct blows to the head that would cripple other mammals of the same body mass.

Groundhogs usually live from two to three years, but can live up to six years in the wild, and up to ten in captivity. Common predators for groundhogs include wolves, coyotes, bobcats, bears, large hawks, and owls. Young groundhogs are often at risk for predation by snakes, which easily enter the burrow.

Mostly herbivorous, groundhogs eat primarily wild grasses and other vegetation, and berries and agricultural crops when available. Groundhogs also eat grubs, grasshoppers, insects, snails and other small animals, but are not as omnivorous as many other sciurids.

Groundhogs are excellent burrowers, using burrows for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernating. The average groundhog has been estimated to move approximately 1 m³ (35 cubic feet), or 320 kg (700 pounds), of dirt when digging a burrow. Though groundhogs are the most solitary of the marmots, several individuals may occupy the same burrow. Groundhog burrows usually have two to five entrances, providing groundhogs their primary means of escape from predators. Burrows are particularly large, with up to 45 feet of tunnels buried up to 5 feet underground, and can pose a serious threat to agricultural and residential development by damaging farm machinery and even undermining building foundations.

Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation, and often build a separate "winter burrow" for this purpose. This burrow is usually in a wooded or brushy area and is dug below the frost line and remains at a stable temperature well above freezing during the winter months. In most areas, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, but in more temperate areas, they may hibernate as little as 3 months. To survive the winter, they are at their maximum weight shortly before entering hibernation. They emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until the warmer spring weather produces abundant plant materials for food.

Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and climbers, and climb trees to escape predators or survey their surroundings. Yet they prefer to retreat to their burrows when threatened; if the burrow is invaded, the groundhog tenaciously defends itself with its two large incisors and front claws. Groundhogs are generally agonistic and territorial among their own species, and may skirmish to establish dominance.

Outside their burrow, individuals are alert when not actively feeding. It is common to see one or more nearly-motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger. When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony.

Usually groundhogs breed in their second year, but a small proportion may breed in their first. The breeding season extends from early March to mid- or late April, after hibernation. A mated pair remains in the same den throughout the 28-32 day gestation period. As birth of the young approaches in April or May, the male leaves the den. One litter is produced annually, usually containing 2-6 blind, hairless and helpless young. Young groundhogs are weaned and ready to seek their own dens at five to six weeks of age.

The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland, and it is rarely far from a burrow entrance. Since the clearing of forests provided it with much more suitable habitat, the groundhog population is probably higher now than it was before the arrival of European settlers in North America. Groundhogs are often hunted for sport, which tends to control their numbers. However, their ability to reproduce quickly has tended to mitigate the depopulating effects of sport hunting. As a consequence, the groundhog is a familiar animal to many people in the United States and Canada.

Groundhogs raised in captivity can be socialized relatively easily; however, their aggressive nature can pose problems. Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo, has been quoted as saying "They’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place. Their natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly."

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum:    Chordata
  • Class:       Mammalia
  • Order:       Rodentia
  • Family:      Sciuridae
  • Genus:      Marmota
  • Species:   M. monax

Binomial name

  • Marmota monax: (Linnaeus, 1758)

Popular culture
In the United States and Canada, the annual Groundhog Day celebration has given the groundhog some added recognition and popularity.

In Disney's fictional universe, The Junior Woodchucks are the Boy Scouts of America child organization.

The etymology of the name woodchuck is unrelated to wood. It stems from an Algonquian name for the animal (possibly Narragansett), wuchak. The apparent relationship between the two words has led to the common tongue twister: "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? — A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood". Other response lines can be used, including:

1. "As much wood as a woodchuck would if a woodchuck could chuck wood."

2. "A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood."

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