Species Spotlight: Groundhog (the Rodent of Many Names).

Photo: Christophe.rolland1/ Stock Free Images

Photo: Christophe.rolland1/ Stock Free Images

How many of us have stayed up well into the night pondering, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood”? The answer is: no amount of wood because woodchucks don’t chuck wood. Frankly, I’m not sure what it means to chuck wood, but I take it that it could involve throwing logs.

What I am sure of is the minor existential crisis I encountered when I was in my late twenties and discovered that A WOODCHUCK AND A GROUNDHOG ARE THE SAME THING. It was a shock on par with finding out that the “Alphabet Song” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” are sung in the same tune. Some of us are just late bloomers wildlife-wise. Oh well, I’m making up for it now.

Whatever you would like to call them–groundhogs, woodchucks, marmots, whistle pigs, and (my favorite) land beaver– they are pretty cool creatures and a point of pride for us here in Pennsylvania. In honor of our beloved Groundhog Day, the humble woodchuck is the natural choice for our next Species Spotlight.

GROUNDHOG (Marmota Monax)


Of course, groundhogs have adaptations that make them wonderful (and we’ll get to that shortly), but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Pennsylvania’s famous groundhogs. Yes, groundhogs, plural. Not only do we have Punxsutawney Phil (live groundhog, The OG–original groundhog– of weather prognosticating), but also Octoraro Orphie (stuffed version, also a prognosticator), and Gus (also stuffed/animatronic, talking mascot of lottery scratch-offs). What other state can lay claim to not one but THREE famous groundhogs? (Answer: I didn’t Google it, but I’m hoping the answer is zero.)

Sciuridae Snacking! It's a "family" affair                                                                                       Photo: BKushner/Stock Free Images

Sciuridae Snacking! It's a "family" affair                                                                                       Photo: BKushner/Stock Free Images

The takeaway is that we get to lay claim to everything groundhog here in Pennsylvania. So here’s a little about them!

Groundhogs are a large rodent in the squirrel family. If that sentence right there doesn’t make you love them, you are probably reading the wrong blog. They are about 20 to 25 inches long and their weight can fluctuate, depending on the season, from 5-15 pounds!

The reason for this weight fluctuation is because of the amount of food they eat in summer and fall in order to prepare for winter, and thus they are a good animal to talk about when you want to discuss true hibernation. Groundhogs feed on vegetation, which is scarce in winter, so entering into a deep, energy-conserving sleep is essential for their survival. The heart rate and body temperature of a groundhog drop significantly during this period. And unlike some other hibernators, such as raccoons, that may wake occasionally throughout winter to eat, groundhogs really commit to the whole process and are deep sleepers until warmer weather arrives.

According to the PAGC, a groundhog has the potential to live about 8 years, but with predation and health issues, the average lifespan is likely closer to six. The exception to this, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil who is over 132 years old. You see, every summer at the Annual Groundhog Picnic he drinks a special elixir that grants him another 7 years of life. This sounds like something that maybe Gwenyth Paltrow might tell you to try to do, but I think it only works for Phil.

The Official Festivities featuring Phil                               Photo: groundhog.org

The Official Festivities featuring Phil                               Photo: groundhog.org

Groundhogs have adaptations that allow them to survive. Their eyes, ears, and nose are all placed near the top of their head, which makes it easy for them to peak out of their burrow to spot danger. If they do spot something that is cause for alarm, they’ll let out their signature whistle to warn others. Despite being short-legged and a little on the heavy side, they can run at a good clip on the ground and can also scurry up and down trees head-first like their relative, the gray squirrel.

Interestingly, he groundhog actually benefits from the modifications people make to the land as they enjoy settling down in farmlands, fields, and open pastures. Because of this, the groundhog population is healthy in Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country. Also because of this, groundhogs are often seen as a pest species to homeowners, gardeners, and farmers because they, too, enjoy the bounty of a delicious vegetable garden, and the elaborate tunnel system they dig can leave the ground uneven and dangerous for farm equipment.

Naturally, groundhogs have an important role in the ecosystem and, therefore, we need to make an effort to peacefully coexist, even if they eat up all of our future salads. The Humane Society has an excellent resource page on how you can solve groundhog issues (as well as other wild animals) and that resource can be found here.


Groundhog                                                                                                                                                   Photo: Lori Black

Groundhog                                                                                                                                                  Photo: Lori Black

Like many mammals, groundhogs come into rehab facilities for a variety of reasons: illnesses, injuries, or being orphaned.

Groundhogs are very cute– especially the babies–but great care must be taken when handling these guys. In Pennsylvania they are one of our six rabies vector species (along with coyotes, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats), which means they can be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms. The rehabilitators who treat these animals have a special license in order to do so, and they follow strict guidelines for handling and housing. If you find a groundhog that needs help, call your local wildlife rehabilitator for advice and the steps you can take!

Happy Groundhog Day from your friends at WRSPA! 

As always, you can Help Us Help Wildlife (and groundhogs!) by donating today!

Hey, Look! Resources!