Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Natural History Notes: Happy Marmota monax day!

It's nearly over, but before you dive back into your hole for a further month and a half of hibernation, celebrate this wonderful day with me by toasting the big rodent who is the star of it all: The North American woodchuck.

Marmota monax, also known as a groundhog (and whistle-pig?!?), is a largish rodent of the squirrel family and the most cosmopolitan of all the marmots. (Most marmots, of which there are four other species besides M. monax, are found only in the Western U.S. and Canada, in the Mountains.)

By "largish," I mean he can be up to 2 feet in length (60 cm) and weighs in at up to 14 pounds (7 or 8 kilograms). They are inveterate burrowers, but in fact do not chuck any wood. So much for the old tongue-twister. Mr. Marmota monax is one of the few mammals that truly hibernates. He and the Mrs. don't just nap, they really konk out. The body temperature of a hibernating woodchuck drops to between 38 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit and its breathing rate slows down to one breath per six minutes.

But they do indeed start to become active at this time of year -- depending, of course, on the local climate.

February 2 has long had significance for European peoples. Candlemas, which falls on this day, was seen as the traditional day that animals came out of hibernation. Many lifestock are calving. Quite a few of our common rodents -- such as the gray squirrel -- bear their young during the month of February, while woodchucks bestir themselves from their nearly comatose condition in order to seek out a mate. Neo-pagans celebrate this day as Imbolc -- a festival of the triple Goddess in her aspect as maiden. With the lengthening days and (hopefully) an end-of-January thaw, the day ushers us closer to the fast approaching Spring.

Of course, you've heard by now that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. Six more weeks of winter. Back to my dogmatic slumbers.

(I'm indebted to Donald and Lillian Stokes' Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior (1986) for some of the natural history details about woodchucks and squirrels. The wikipedia was also helpful.)

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