Winter or spring, facts shadow the elusive groundhog

Two young yellow-bellied marmots sit atop a boulder, as if looking for the arrival of spring. These highly social members of the ground squirrel family may live up to 15 years in the wild. Alaska celebrates Feb. 2 as Marmot Day. Marmots are 99 percent vegetarian and those in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah are known to fruit falling from trees in old Mormon orchards.

There aren’t many furry, roly-poly creatures with a special day, excepting that famous red-and-white roly-poly, one Mr. S. Claus.

But today is the other day of the year most of us pay attention to roly-polies, particularly one known as Punxsutawney Phil, the legendary woodchuck weather creature.

More winter? Less winter? A forecaster of the future?

Believe what you will but there’s no promise your lilacs are going to be early.

During your day’s wanderings in search of the elusive whistlepig, another of the many names for members of the genus Marmota, here are a few groundhog facts to ponder, courtesy of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and the University of California, Los Angeles.

And prairie dogs don’t count — the marmot is our western version of Punxsutawney Phil.

Impress your friends with the following:

Groundhogs are among the few animals that are true hibernators, fattening up in the warm seasons and snoozing for most of three months during the chill times.

While hibernating, a woodchuck’s body temperature can drop from about 99 degrees to as low as 37. (Don’t try this at home. Humans get hypothermic when their body temperature drops a mere 3 degrees, lose consciousness at 82 degrees and may die below 70 degrees.)

The heart rate of a hibernating woodchuck slows from about 80 beats per minute to five.

Breathing slows from around 16 breaths per minute to as few as two;

They don’t keep their body temperature down all winter, rather, they wake up every week or so for a bit and then go back into deep hibernation.

During hibernation, which may be as long as 150 days, a marmot may lose up to half its weight. Animals with insufficient fat or a burrow too shallow to prevent freezing do not arouse in the spring.

During warm seasons, a groundhog may pack in more than a pound of vegetation at one sitting, sort of like your 150-pound brother scarfing down a 15-pound steak.

Groundhog Day is the only U.S. holiday named after an animal. No, Turkey Day doesn’t count.

Vancouver Island marmots in Canada number less than 100 and are one of the most endangered species in the world.

Woodchuck burrows, which may reach 6 feet deep, can meander underground for 20 feet or more, usually with two entrances but some burrows may have up to 12;

Burrows are the groundhogs’ chief means of evading enemies, because the rotund little guys (just before hibernation, a hefty woodchuck may tip the scales at 14 pounds) are too slow to escape most predators in a dead heat. The rodents have a top speed of only 8 mph, while a hungry fox/coyote/bobcat may hit 25 mph.

Oh, yes, one more thing: While groundhogs may not be the best weather predictors, they do in fact emerge from dens in early February.

Research indicates males rouse themselves in mid-winter searching their territories (up to 7 acres in size) for burrows belonging to females. The males enter the burrows and may spend the night.

It’s not an amorous visit. It’s more socializing and setting up future meetings after the animals emerge for the summer in March.


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