Kane County Nature Expert: 10-Pound Rodent Story Will Dominate Media on Feb. 2

Kane County Nature Expert: 10-Pound Rodent Story Will Dominate Media on Feb. 2

  • This article was written by Valerie Blaine, nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.
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It’s not in Kane County per se, but there is a Major League Groundhog Day celebration coming up in nearby Woodstock, IL.

He’s not your typical squirrel. For one thing, he’s big. You won’t find him in treetops. But you will find him all over the news on Feb. 2, because it’s his day in the sun — or not, as the case may be.

Yes, we’re talking about the groundhog.

The groundhog, or woodchuck, is notable in meteorological mythology. There’s a lot more to this big rodent, however, than weather forecasting. It’s one of our few true hibernators, and it’s the largest member of the squirrel family in Illinois.

Weighing in at about 10 pounds, the woodchuck is a hefty rodent. Despite his bulky body and lumbering gait, the woodchuck can boogie when he needs to escape a predator. Woodchucks run at “a loping gallop of about 10 mph,” according to J. Light on the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity website. They do occasionally climb trees to reach food or escape a predator. Or perhaps just to prove that they can.

This is a critter with many aliases. “Woodchuck” and “groundhog” are the most commonly used names. It has earned the nickname “whistlepig,” as well, after its habit of whistling when in danger. Its scientific moniker Marmota monax is derived from both European and Native American words.

Some sources say that “Marmota” comes from an Old French verb marmotter, meaning to mumble. Others claim it is Italian in origin and means “mountain mouse.” This etymology is not terribly helpful in describing the rodent, but the specific epithet “monax” is more apt.  Monax comes from an American Indian word meaning “digger.”

With short powerful legs and big front teeth, the woodchuck is an impressive earthmoving machine.  One individual moves a prodigious amount of soil in the construction of a burrow. The network of tunnels extends up to 45 feet, reaching down to 5 feet below the surface of the ground. There are numerous chambers in the tunnel system, one of which is the hibernaculum, where the woodchuck sleeps away the winter months.

A meticulous housekeeper, the woodchuck keeps the hallways and bedrooms clean and free of debris.

The woodchuck’s down-to-earth existence is spent on the ground or in burrows. In ecological terms, this lifestyle is called “semi-fossorial.” (A mole, by contrast, is fossorial and lives his entire subterranean life without seeing the light of day.)

When woodchucks are out and about, their main intent is gathering food and chowing down. You’ll occasionally see a woodchuck on his haunches, pulling up plants with their forelegs and then uncouthly stuffing the veggies in his mouth.  Woodchucks rarely venture far from their burrow, and they can quickly dive into an escape hatch (the “plunge hole”) when threatened by any of their numerous enemies.

Dogs, coyotes, and hawks are but a few on woodchuck’s Most-Dreaded List.

Handful of Hibernators

thirteen-lined ground squirrel large

The thirteen-lined ground squirrel. CREDIT: Animal Diversity Web

The woodchuck is one of only a handful of true hibernators in Illinois. Woodchucks share this status with the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and various species of bats. By contrast, raccoons, opossums, and chipmunks, enter an inactive state of torpor during the brutal cold snaps of winter, but they are not true hibernators. In torpor, metabolism slows down slightly, and the animals can be easily roused from this resting state.

Hibernation entails a drastic drop in metabolic rates. Heart rate, body temperature and breathing slow to a near standstill. If heart rate becomes dangerously low, the animal does wake up to generate enough heat to remain safe. Woodchucks’ average 80 heartbeats per minute dips to 4-5 beats per minute in hibernation. Body temperature plummets from an average 36 degrees Celsius to a low of 3 degrees Celsius. Breathing may slow from 25-30 breaths per minute to about one breath every five or six minutes!

To make it through the big sleep, woodchucks begin putting on the pounds in late summer, thereby building up fat reserves.  Come October, when the days grow short and the weather turns cold, woodchucks retreat to their hibernacula where they curl up in tight balls and slip into dreamland. For the next three and a half to four months they will catch their winter z’s.

Woodchucks emerge from hibernation gradually as spring approaches. The timing is not necessarily correlated with camera-toting crowds of humans, eager for a media soundbite.  Groundhogs will emerge when they emerge, in their own good time.

When they do emerge from hibernation, they bridge the passage from winter to spring.

Even if they don’t have meteorological skills, they’re pretty cool critters. Just think, without the woodchuck, we wouldn’t have that wonderful tongue-tying question.

Let’s see, how does it go again?

Upcoming Nature Programs!

To register for programs and/or schedule school or scout field trips, call 630-444-3190 or e-mail programs@kaneforest.com. Telephone reservations are accepted from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Click the links below for PDFs of the Forest Preserve of Kane County press releases.

About the Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The Forest Preserve District of Kane County acquires, holds and maintains land to preserve natural and historic resources, habitats, flora and fauna. The district restores, restocks, protects and preserves open space for the education, recreation and pleasure of Kane County citizens. For more information, visit the district’s website or find them on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up for the quarterly TreeLine Newsletter.

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