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The big sleep - Groundhog slumbers to survive, but next generation hinges on his wake-up

By Steve Vantreese

If Punxsutawney Phil were to blame for this ongoing distasteful weather, I'd suggest ejecting him from his cushy man-made quarters and chucking that woodchuck into a snow bank.

That domesticated rodent did supposedly predict six more weeks of wintry weather when keepers in his namesake Pennsylvania burg dragged him out to see his shadow on Groundhog Day last Sunday.

Alas, this captive groundhog probably doesn't know what the next six weeks will hold, much less have any influence over it. We'll have to hold other meteorological factors responsible.

Other groundhogs, wild ones acting naturally, don't control the weather, and they probably can't prognosticate it. Yet, they do know how to cope with wintry weather. They are a study in energy conservation.

Groundhogs know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. They instinctively adjust to wintry weather by showing judicious timing in sleeping and awaking. It's a matter of surviving, even as a species.

The groundhog is a classic hibernator, one of a few such mammals in our temperate world. This critter cannot endure winter up and about as he must live, so he sleeps through most of it. This works by reducing his energy needs, making it possible to survive on stored fat.

You may or may not know the groundhog, an eastern marmot, our largest squirrel family member and a bit player in the now-celebrated "Groundhog Day" Bill Murray film. Outdoors folks will know them as residents of woodlots, forest edge and fields, a bane of farmers and gardeners, a sometimes target of varmint hunters.

The groundhog grows 18-24 inches long, plus a coarse, scruffy tail of 8 or 9 inches. He's a grizzled brown rodent with squirrelly looks except he's far larger, short-legged, wider and built low to the ground when he's not standing upright on lookout duty.

The adult groundhog grows up to 10-15 pounds on a diet mostly of green plant material. He'll eat acorns and other seeds and fruits, but the bulk of his diet comes from grazing on grasses and other lush green plants. (Soybean farmers generally loathe them for that.)

Groundhogs pig out, so to speak, throughout the growing season to pack on a maximum body weight preparing for hibernation â “ typically in November hereabouts. Hibernation usually lasts to sometime in March here.

That's about four months during which groundhogs fuel themselves on fat reserves stored in their own bodies. The only way they can stretch their stored energy for a full third of the year is to eat like crazy while they can, then lower the body's thermostat during those wintry endurance months.

A hibernating groundhog drops into heavy sleep while its body functions slow down to reduce the rate at which stored calories are consumed. The normal body temperature of a warm-blooded groundhog is said to be 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit, but during hibernation that can drop to as little as 38 degrees, biologists say.

Groundhogs hibernate in burrows, each one's hibernation spot usually in the deepest part of a tunnel/chamber network that may run more than 60 feet long. During deep winter sleep, their bodies may cool to about the same temperature as these snoozing quarters.

Not only does the big ground squirrel's temperature drop, its other vitals back down to the point where it's barely alive in deepest sleep. The groundhog's heart rate may slow to perhaps five beats per minute. Its respiration can slow to almost nothing â “ maybe one breath every five or six minutes.

The minimal body function is correctly called torpor, and research shows that, while a groundhog may hibernate four months, the torpor comes and goes. Study finds that a groundhog may drop into torpor for a week, then rouse up to near normal levels to stay awake for three or four days before sinking back into deep slumber.

Biologists say a hibernating groundhog may go through a dozen to maybe 20 awakening/torpor cycles during a winter's hibernation. It's likely one of these awakening phases was the basis of the old folklore that the rodents emerged from their burrows on Feb. 2 to produce the Groundhog Day weather forecast.

Male groundhogs will awake and make some neighborhood house calls in February. Researchers find that the manly marmots do emerge and visit nearby burrows, seemingly to confirm the presence of female groundhogs. It was once thought that they bred some of the females before they awakened, but biologists now say that males may be just scouting out likely females for when the actual breeding phase does ensue in March.

Most mating apparently occurs in early March when the varmints first come out of hibernation to stay. It's important that they breed then, the timing critical for survival of the next generation â “ litters of four or five youngsters born to females typically in late April and early May.

Why is that a big deal? Born earlier, young groundhogs won't have adequate new green food available when they are weaned. Born later, young groundhogs won't have enough time to pack on adequate body fat so that they themselves can survive the next winter in hibernation.

In the groundhog's case, if you don't snooze you lose. It's just a matter of when and how long.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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