Groundhogs are the largest members of the sciuridae (squirrel) family. They generally are stocky, appearing to have short legs and round bodies with a bushy tail. While their legs are short, they are incredibly strong. This in addition to curved claws allows the groundhog to be an excellent digger. They are also strong climbers and accomplished swimmers.
Also known as the woodchuck, these animals are known to stand up on their hind legs to survey their surroundings. Coat color varies depending on the subspecies. They could be grayish in color to a cinnamon brown. Because they have guard hairs that are tipped with white, the groundhog is given a frosted appearance. Woodchucks have a double coat. Their rounded ears are useful when burrowing because they cover the ear canal and prevent dirt from getting in.
Groundhogs range from 415 to 675mm in length and can weigh up to 6 kg. Males of this species often grow to be larger in size and weight than the females.
Habitat/Range: The most wide spread of the marmot species in North America, the groundhog can be found as far north as Alaska and as far south as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. They prefer more open habitats but also are commonly found in edge habitats between forests and open fields. Unlike some other species, the groundhog seems to thrive in areas near human development. The clearing of forests to create fields has greatly increased the number of these animals found in PA. It is also interesting to note that many groundhogs have a summer den and a winter den. They always burrow in soils that are well drained. They are generally solitary although males have a home range that generally overlaps with the home range of one or two females.
Diet in Wild: Groundhogs are omnivores. Although they primarily eat vegetation, they can also consume invertebrates. They typically eat grasses, berries, agricultural crops, nuts and bark. They may also consume invertebrates such as grubs and insects as well as birds eggs or small animals. Unlike other squirrel species, the groundhog will not burry and store food for the winter, instead they hibernate. It should also be noted that most of the water they need to survive can be obtained simply from the greens they consume.
Diet in Zoo: Rodent Block, orchard grass, veggies
Predators: Known predators of this species include canids such as the gray wolf, coyote, and foxes as well as domesticated dog species. They are also preyed upon by black bears, lynx, bobcat, and birds of prey. When young are still confined to the burrow, snakes easily sneak in and may prey upon them.
Life Cycle/ Social Structure: Primarily diurnal, groundhogs are most active for food foraging during the morning and early afternoon. During the summer months they average two feeding sessions a day that both last about two hours. They need to gain extra weight in fall as they are true hibernators (although groundhogs in the south have been known to skip hibernation).
In the spring, males exit hibernation first in order to establish clear territories before the females emerge. Groundhog males generally mate with multiple females quickly after they emerge from their winter burrows. After a gestation period of about 32 days a litter of altricial pups is born. The litter size is generally between 1 and 9 young which the mother weans at about 45 days old. Juvenile groundhogs can leave the mother as early as 2 months of age and they become sexually mature within the first or second year.
Each den has many entrances which the groundhog is rarely far from when foraging from food. This allows them to quickly escape if they feel threatened.
In the wild, groundhogs can live up to six years, with two or three being average. In captivity, groundhogs are reported to live from 9–14 years.
- Groundhogs are excellent burrowers, using burrows for sleeping, rearing young, andhibernating. The average groundhog has been estimated to move approximately 1 m3 (35 cu ft), or 2,500 kg (5,500 lb), of soil when digging a burrow.
- Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and excellent tree climbers when escaping predators or when they want to survey their surroundings
- When groundhogs are frightened, the hairs of the tail stand straight up, giving the tail the appearance of a hair brush.
- Groundhogs are known to make a whistling sound and can sometimes be referred to as a whistle pig.
- Unlike other animals in the squirrel family, groundhogs have a curved spine (like a mole)
Groundhogs help to aerate soil, aid in seed dispersal and create new habitats for may other animals. To help these animals, use humane capture techniques and relocate or donate captured groundhogs to aid in medical research. While these animals are sometimes a nuisance to farmers and suburban areas, they are highly helping in medical research and education.