10 Fun (and Little-Known) Facts About Groundhogs

With Groundhog Day approaching, we realized we didn’t know nearly enough about groundhogs as we’d like to -- and as a company who makes nature games and donates trees for every board game we sell, that bugged us. So, we did some digging of our own and came up with these 10 fun (and little-known) facts about groundhogs that we'd like to share.

HINT: there’s WAY more to Punxsutawney Phil than an impossible-to-Google name.

1. Groundhogs are giant squirrels

They may live in the ground, but they’re certainly not hogs. They’re rodents. Members of a class of ground squirrels called marmots (Marmota Monax), and the largest members of the squirrel family, period. They are giant squirrels. Groundhogs are also known as whistle pigs (because they alert their colonies to threats by whistling), land beavers (because early settlers thought they looked like beavers), mouse bears (because settlers also thought they looked like tiny bears with mouse faces when they stood up)... and woodchucks.

FUN FACT: the name "woodchuck" comes from an Algonquin (possibly Narragansett) name for the animal - "wuchak." It has nothing whatsoever to do with the groundhog's ability to chuck wood (which it does not actually do).

2. Groundhog teeth never stop growing

Just like their squirrel cousins, groundhog teeth never stop growing. Averaging growth of 1/16 of an inch per week, a groundhog’s front incisors are usually 4 inches long. These teeth don't have enamel on the back, and groundhogs bite off vegetation and chew through roots so they can keep their teeth trim. Otherwise they get snaggletoothed, like in the picture up there. Or impale their lower jaw (which you can google yourself, if you're so inclined. WARNING: it's not pretty).

3. Groundhogs are serious hibernators

Groundhogs sleep for up to 3 months, and go 150 days without eating. In order to accommodate all that sleep, they binge eat in the warm seasons -- scarfing the vegetation equivalent of a 15-pound steak in one meal, for instance. Even with all that food in their bellies, groundhogs will only lose 1/4 of their body weight, thanks to their reduced metabolism. The Internal body temperature of a groundhog can drop from 99 degrees to as low as 37, and breathing is reduced from 16 times a minute to 2.

4. Groundhogs can climb trees. And swim.

Even though they're ground squirrels, groundhogs can still mix it up with their tree-climbing cousins when they need to. They can also swim. Groundhogs use both of these skills to either evade predators or survey their territory for potential sources of food. Or predators.

5. Groundhogs have curved spines

Unlike squirrels, groundhogs have curved spines. This makes their skeletons more like the mole's, pictured above. This evolutionary trait is to support all the digging they do.

6. Groundhogs can move over 5,550 pounds of dirt digging one burrow

Even though groundhogs love open wooded areas, they prefer to spend their time in the safety of their burrows. A single groundhog burrow has 2-5 entrances, is 5 feet underground, and can have up to 50 feet of tunnels in it. Moving all of that dirt out from one area poses a serious threat to the structural integrity of any building foundations that are near the burrow. And to any farm equipment that may be sitting on top of it.

7. Groundhog babies are born hairless and blind

Groundhogs babies are also rather mole-like, in that they're born hairless and blind. They only stay that way until their fur grows in, like this little guy. After that, they’re ready to seek out their own dens at 5-6 weeks old

8. Groundhogs are helping us find cures for liver cancer 

Groundhogs are extremely useful for studying the effects of, and possible cures to, both hepatitis-B and liver cancer. They always develop liver cancer when given the Woodchuck strain of hepatitis-B, and that helps researchers determine how the diseases are linked. In fact, before this kind of testing, there was no known link between hepatitis-B and liver cancer. We found one, thanks to groundhogs. And researchers at Cornell are making big strides in curing it.

9. Groundhogs are in no danger of becoming extinct

Groundhogs are at the lowest risk possible on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species scale ("Least Concern"). In fact, due to the groundhog's preference for open areas, and the deforestation of North America by European settlers back in the 18th Century, these little guys are thriving. There might be more groundhogs now than there were in Columbus' day.

10. Groundhogs can’t actually predict weather

The Guardian made a chart (and spreadsheet!) to prove it: in the last 15 years, groundhogs have only correctly predicted the weather 4 times. In fact, the only reason people think groundhogs can do this is thanks to an old folk legend: apparently, a settler in early  Punxsutawney remembered a story from the old country about beavers predicting weather and thought any beaver-like animal could do the same thing. And since the groundhog looked like a land beaver... well, the rest is history.

Any facts we missed? Were there any you were surprised by? Let us know in the comments -- and on Facebook and Twitter! And remember: you can always learn more about animals from our games.