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  • Groundhog, Woodchuck, or Whistlepig?

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    Tags: Groundhog day, whistlepig, ground squirrel, ground squirrells, woodchuck, woodchucks, holiday, Steve Sullivan, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

    Created: 2/1/2013      Updated: 5/28/2015

    Squirrels are a very diverse group of rodents. This little Bornean tree squirrel is among the smallest while the American groundhog is among the largest. The groundhog (Marmota monax)can be found through most of the country and consequently have many names like woodchuck and whistlepig. Here is a groundhog skin from the Academy’s collection next to North America’s smallest squirrel, the Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)—not to be confused with the Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which is pretty big compared to a red squirrel.

    Bornean Squirrel skin from the Chicago Academy of Sciences Collection. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Groundhog skin and Red Squirrel skin from Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Borneo Tree Squirrel
                           Groundhog and Red Squirrel

    Fox squirrel. Chicago Academy of Sciences. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
    Fox Squirrel

    Although all of these animals are squirrels, the bushy-tailed tree squirrels remain active year round, relying on cached food to help them make it through the winter.  However, ground squirrels, like Groundhogs have a different strategy. They eat as much tender grass and other easily-digested plant material as they can during the growing season, and may double their spring weight with fat. Then, once cool weather sets in, they go deep in their burrows for a long winter’s sleep, dropping their heart rate from around 140 beats per minute to less than 20 and cooling their body down as well. Groundhogs will periodically rouse from torpor and re-warm their body before settling down again. Legend has it that during one of these warming bouts, they can predict the end of winter. While this is a fun tradition, there’s no evidence that squirrels actually have predictive powers. In fact, the legend apparently began in Germany where the most common charismatic hibernator is the hedgehog. Lacking hedgehogs in America, German immigrants transferred the idea to the local woodchucks and a fun holiday was born.

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