This morning I tested my slapstick prowess slipping on an icy sidewalk. Since the incident, however, I have seen a bright side: As winter storms slam the nation, Punxsutawney Phil, (in)famous weathergroundhog, has NOT seen his shadow. That means SPRING IS NEAR! (Right?...Right? Sigh...Bill Murray's prediction in the clip above somehow seems more plausible...)
The Groundhog Day custom is rooted in the animal’s emergence from hibernation, which, according to some legends, is on February 2nd (for more history, click here). These stocky weather prognosticators are the widest ranging North American marmot (Marmota monax), occurring at forest edges in meadows and pastures in most eastern U.S. states and other regions, including Alaska and Canada.
In preparation for their Rip Van Winkle sleep, groundhogs develop a heavy layer of fat in later summer and early fall to sustain them during a winter's slumber. Then, come October, they dig a burrow and pass out—well, almost. Their body temperature falls substantially, their breathing slows, and their heart thumps drop from 80-95 beats per minute to about 3-5. Depending on the area where they live, groundhogs could hibernate for three-and-a-half to five months.
Now, in honor of the venerable hirsute meteorologist, here's a quiz to test your groundhog IQ (answers at the end):
1) True or False?
Groundhogs are also known as prairie dogs.
2) What family do groundhogs belong in? (Hint, Bill Murray incorrectly identifies them in the clip.)
a) Weasels, skunks, and kin
d) Rats and mice
3) True or False?
Groundhogs are exclusively carnivorous.
4) During hibernation, groundhogs’ body temperature can drop to:
a) 32° F
b) 45° F
c) 70° F
d) -12° F
5) True or False. Groundhogs have complex social systems.
Scroll down for the ANSWERS...
1) False. But they do have at least one other name: "woodchuck," which comes from wuchak, a Native American word used by the Cree to identify a few different animals of similar size and color. It has nothing to do with groundhogs' behavior or their habitat. Incidentally, the name "groundhog" stems from its appearance: squat, with a waddling gait and ground-dwelling habit.
2) b. Groundhogs are members of the squirrel family.
3) False. Groundhogs are herbivores, although they may eat some animal matter. Only groundhogs and one other marmot species occur at elevations low enough to have an undesirable impact on crops—and they’ll damage everything from grains, clover and alfalfa to beans, peas, corn, and apple trees. Don’t put it past them to chew on an electrical wire, either.
4) b. Groundhogs' body temperature drops from about 96-97°F to about 45°F during hibernation, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
5) False. Groundhogs are the only ones out of the six marmot species that are solitary (although adult and yearling females may share a burrow in early spring.)