Common Name: Groundhog, Woodchuck, Forest marmot, Whistle pig, Marmotte commune (French), Waldmurmeltier (German), Marmota canadiense (Spanish) – Groundhog is thought to derive from a translation of the Afrikaans aardvark; aarde means “earth” and vark means “pig”. This may have come to North America with the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. Or it may have referred to a pig-like animal that lived in a burrow.
Scientific Name: Marmota monax – The generic name comes from the French marmotte which is a shortened form of the Old French marmontaine which is from the Latin mures monti, which means “mountain mouse.” The specific name is from the Greek monos, which means single of alone, referring to the solitary, asocial behavior of the groundhog.
Potpourri: The groundhog is also known from a entirely separate etymology as the woodchuck. Native Americans were very familiar with the indigenous mammal and had various names for it according to the tribe: ockqutchaun in Narragansett; otchig in Ojibwa; otcheck or wuchak in Cree. It is not clear that this was the name given to the groundhog, as it translates as “he who fishes” and was given to any of various fishing animals. The name wuchak was adopted by the colonists; changing wu to wood to account for the animal’s habitat and changing chak to chuck as an onomatopoeia for the clucking noises that it made. The calque word woodchuck was the result. This has led to the commonly held notion that the woodchuck is related to the beaver. However, the woodchuck can’t chuck wood.
The groundhog is the most solitary of the marmots, which are large ground squirrels that live in burrows and subsist on vegetative matter that can include grasses, berries, lichens, mosses, roots and flowers. The marmot appellation is more commonly applied to the species that live in mountainous areas, such as the Hoary Marmot (M. caligata) of the North American northwest and Siberia. The Alpine Marmot (M. marmota) of Europe is thought by some historians to be the primary carrier of the Bubonic Plague, otherwise attributed to rats.
Woodchucks have strong, clawed forelimbs to dig elaborate dens that consist of an underground tunnel system with over 45 feet of tunnels extending to a depth of five feet underground. The den is accessed by a number of entrances, one of which is a plunge hole that extends vertically to the main tunnel for rapid ingress to escape predation; occupied dens have a characteristic pile of fresh earth at the entrances as a result of frequent cleaning. The den is arranged with a special chamber for excrement and a chamber for sleeping/hibernation that is a cozy 15 inch diameter padded nest. The dens are both a boon and a bane as far humans are concerned. Their aeration and fecal fertilization of the subsoil transforms it into topsoil, estimated by the state of New York to amount to 1.6 million tons per year. On the other hand, the burrows can damage building foundations and are a hazard to horses, who have been known to break a leg on penetrating a hidden tunnel.
Woodchucks are solitary, agonistic animals. Mating occurs soon after emergence from hibernation in early spring, the males fighting for the rights to reproductive activities. The pugilistic ritual brings out the range of noises that make up the vocabulary of the animal which consists of barking, squealing, chattering, and whistling; the name whistle pig is attributable to the cacophony. Female woodchucks have about three to five pups, who they raise without any paternal parenting. The young are naked, blind and helpless; they don’t even open their eyes until the fourth week. At six weeks, they are expelled from the den and forced to disperse. Not too many survive the first summer. Adult woodchucks are true hibernators; their body temperature drops from 95 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit and their heartbeat slows form 100 to 15 per minute. Hibernating begins in October and does not end until March or April, well after Groundhog Day (February 2).
There is some controversy on the etiology of Groundhog Day. February 2 is a “cross-quarter” day that marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is therefore a logical point at which to prognosticate as to the timing of spring. The Romans purportedly celebrated Hedgehog Day in a similar manner, the indigenous hedgehog providing the shadowy omen, a practice retained in medieval Europe and brought to the colonies with the requisite substitution of the groundhog. An alternative view is that it started with the Celts, who celebrated Imbolc, meaning lamb’s milk, on the second of February. A cloudy day was considered a harbinger of warm spring rains to prepare the ground for planting. According to this tradition, Imbolc was symbolized by Brigantia, the goddess of light. When the Christian faith penetrated the Celtic lands, the holiday retained the leitmotif as Candlemas, when the candles of the church were blessed.