Overappreciated Prognosticators; Underappreciated Interior Designers

By John McFerrin

            Now we have a few more data points in the ongoing effort to determine if groundhogs really can predict the weather.  Punxsutawney Phil—the national groundhog by virtue of his cinematic career and superior public relations efforts—predicted six more weeks of winter.  In West Virginia, however, both of our groundhogs—Concord Charlie and French Creek Freddie—predicted an early spring.  From the recent ice storms and snow it appears that Phil got the better of that prediction.

            In Texas, on the other hand, the groundhog at the Dallas Arboretum predicted six more weeks of winter.  Sounds about right.

            Even with these additional data points, we are no closer to answering the question of whether or not groundhogs can predict the weather.  Is Groundhog Day a real thing, or just another excuse for the imminences of Punxsutawney to dress up in their top hats and terrify a hapless rodent?

For a more rigorous examination of the question, we can look to a study published in Scientific American last year.  According to the article the cute little rodent is lousy at predicting. It can predict the coming of spring no better than a coin flip. To see the whole article, go to https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/groundhogs-dont-have-a-clue/.

Even if the groundhog’s skill as a weatherrodent is questionable, it is a master at interior design.  Its burrows are used for safety, hibernating, sleeping, and as a nursery.  There are separate rooms for each, including a separate room that serves as a toilet.  There is one main entrance plus up to five other holes, handy for use either as an emergency exit or an entrance when danger looms.  

All groundhog burrows are basically laid out in the same way. When digging a burrow, the groundhog starts digging inward for several feet, then inclines the tunnel upward for a few feet. After that, they dig horizontally for 15-25 feet. This design will prevent the tunnel from flooding. From the main tunnel, two to three side tunnels are dug, leading to separate areas for sleeping, rearing young, and use as a toilet. After the toilet is full, the area is sealed off and another toilet area is dug. 

Groundhogs usually have both a summer and a separate winter burrow.  The winter one is deeper, deep enough to assure it is below where the ground freezes.  Groundhogs are true hibernators.  Unlike some animals who only go into a deep sleep in winter, groundhogs lower their body temperature to as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit; their heart rate falls to 4–10 beats per minute and breathing rate falls to one breath every six minutes.  If their deep burrows did not put the hibernating groundhog below the frost line they could freeze.

Other groundhog facts:

  • Groundhogs probably don’t drink water.  They sustain themselves on the liquids found in the food they eat and dew on that food.
  • Groundhogs may double their body weight as they prepare for hibernation.  They don’t store food for the winter; they eat until they have enough nutrition stored in their fat.
  • To accommodate its large appetite, groundhogs grow upper and lower incisors that can withstand wear and tear because they grow about a sixteenth of an inch each week.
  • Groundhogs are used in medical research on hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. A percentage of the groundhog population is infected with the woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV), similar to human hepatitis B virus. Humans do not receive hepatitis from groundhogs with WHV but the virus and its effects on the liver make the groundhog the best available animal for the study of viral hepatitis in humans.
  • Abandoned groundhog burrows provide shelter for a number of wildlife species, including rabbits, raccoons, foxes, skunks, weasels, and opossums. Groundhogs also move large amounts of subsoil when digging their burrows, which helps to aerate and mix the soil.
  • Except when they are breeding or raising young, groundhogs are solitary.  Males emerge first in the spring when they go looking for burrows where there is a female (probably what Phil, Charlie, et al had in mind when they saw, or didn’t see, their shadows).  They often move into the female’s burrow for a period of getting acquainted before mating begins.