All About the Groundhogs: The Land Beaver

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

Scientific nameMarmota MonaxWeight1.8-4 kilograms (4-9 pounds)
PronunciationGround-hawgLength0.4–0.66 meters (1.33-2.17 feet)
ClassificationMammalia, Rodentia, SciuridaeLocationCanada and USA (North America)

The Groundhog

Groundhog on Laval University Campus at Quebec, Canada
Groundhog on Laval University Campus at Quebec, Canada / Cephas via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 3.0

The groundhog goes by many names. 

It is known as the woodchuck, groundpig, whistler, thick wood badger, and land beaver, among other names. 

It is a rodent closely related to squirrels and is found across various locations in North America. 

Unlike other marmots typically found in rocky and mountainous areas, groundhogs live in lowlands.

Like their close relatives, the beavers, the groundhog is an important habitat engineer whose activities contribute to healthy soils in the plains and woodlands of North America. 

However, groundhogs are also considered agricultural pests whose burrowing activities can be a serious nuisance in farms and gardens. 

This article is all about this impressive rodent, and it provides an overview of what it looks like, where and how it lives, and its significance to humans. 

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Taxonomy and Classification

Two distinct types of Groundhogs
Two distinct types of Groundhogs / Cephas via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 3.0

The groundhog is scientifically known as Marmota monax

It belongs to the Marmota genus, along with 14 other closely related species. 

Members of this group are also referred to as ground squirrels to differentiate them from their tree-dwelling relatives within the Sciurid family

Marmots are among the heaviest members of this family, and the groundhog is the biggest of them. 

All squirrels belong to the order Rodentia, a large group of mammals known for their prominent, continuously growing incisor teeth. 

All rodents evolved in North America during the Paleocene epoch, about 56 million years ago. 

This squirrel family is one of the largest families within this order, with about 272 species grouped into 51 genera.

Physical Characteristics

A groundhog showing its physique
A groundhog showing its physique / Cephas via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

Groundhogs have a  stocky build with relatively short but strong legs.

Their limbs end in long claws that are well-adapted for digging. 

The groundhog is one of the largest species of ground squirrels. 

The size of the groundhog is only exceeded by the closely related hoary marmot. 

They look a little like mini-bears when they stand up on their hindlimbs but are significantly smaller. 

On average, groundhogs measure between 16 and 26 inches (40 to 66 centimeters) in length. 

The weight of a groundhog is subject to seasonal changes since they spend significant time hibernating. 

A groundhog searching for food in the grass
A groundhog searching for food in the grass / Rodrigo.Argenton via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

The average weight of this rodent is about four to nine pounds (1.8 to 4 kilograms), but this may drop to about two to five pounds (0.9 to 2.3 kilograms) during hibernation.

They exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males being bigger than females on average. 

One of the most distinctive physical attributes of the groundhog is their long front incisor teeth. 

The four incisor teeth grow at a rate of about 1.5 millimeters (1/16 inches) per week but are constantly worn down with use. 

Their teeth are ivory-white, which is different from other rodents. 

Woodchucks have brownish-gray fur, but this color varies depending on the location and from one individual to the other. 

The area around their throat and chest typically has a lighter coloration, which can be almost yellowish or reddish-brown in some individuals. 

Close-up view of a Groundhog
Close-up view of a Groundhog / ElsvanderGun via Getty Images

Groundhogs have bushy tails covered in short, coarse hairs that are darker on the top and lighter underneath.

The tail is long but slightly shorter than that of other rodents. 

The groundhog tails typically measure about four to seven inches (10 to 18 centimeters) long or about one-fourth of the rodent’s body length. 

Habitat and Distribution

Groundhogs are native to North America. 

They are primarily found in the eastern and central parts of the continent, with a range extending from the Eastern United States to Canada. 

In the United States, the typical range of the groundhog extends westwards from the eastern seaboard to the Great Plains. 

This rodent is most commonly found in the states on the Northeastern end of the country, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. 

They’re less common as you move towards the southern and western states of the U.S. 

Within Canada, groundhog populations are typically found in Ontario and Quebec. 

Unlike other North American marmots that tend to live in rocky and mountainous areas, the groundhog is a lowland animal. 

Groundhog in a field
Groundhog in a field / Rodrigo Argenton via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

Their preferred habitats include open grasslands, meadows, small woodlots, and low-elevation forests. 

Groundhogs are also found in agricultural lands such as fields, pastures, and hedgerows. 

Groundhogs are burrowing animals. 

They sleep, raise their young, and poop within their burrows which typically have separate bathroom areas. 

They prefer to make their burrows in well-drained soils and rarely stray too far from their burrow entrance. 

Most groundhogs have separate dens for summer and winter. 

The groundhog’s nesting chamber is usually about twenty inches to up to three feet (51–91 centimeters) below the ground surface. 

A Groundhog borrow hole
A Groundhog borrow hole / Ladycamera via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

Their burrow typically has two openings, one serving as the main entrance and the other as a spy hole to watch out for predators. 

Like many rodent species, groundhogs thrive near human developments where food is abundant and predators are few. 

Behavior and Social Structure

Despite their robust appearance, groundhogs are more agile than they appear. 

They can walk and run quickly and are accomplished swimmers, too. 

Woodchucks may also climb trees occasionally, especially when trying to escape predators or survey their surroundings for threats. 

Groundhogs are generally shy and typically retreat to their burrow if they feel threatened. 

However, if cornered, the groundhog will tenaciously defend itself with its claws and prominent incisors.

Two Groundhogs making contact
Two Groundhogs making contact / 4FR via iStock

Groundhogs are solitary animals and can be quite territorial. 

They mark their territories with scent markings, and encounters between individuals often result in aggressive behaviors, loud vocalizations, and physical confrontations.

Groundhogs are diurnal, which means they’re more active during the day than at night. 

They are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, but the hottest part of the day is spent resting inside their burrow. 

During the active season, they spend significant time foraging and maintaining their burrows.

Groundhogs are among the few animal species that enter true hibernation for long periods. 

To survive during the harsh winter, the groundhog enters into a state of suspended hibernation, with temperatures dropping as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit (2 °C). 

A marmot peeking from its burrow during the day
A marmot peeking from its burrow during the day / Wirestock via iStock

The rodent’s heart rate also falls to about four to ten beats per minute, while breathing slows down to only one breath in six minutes. 

The typical hibernation period for the groundhog is between October to March (or April) every year. 

However, in more temperate areas, they only hibernate for about three months. 

When they emerge from hibernation, woodchucks may have lost as much as half their body weight. 

Diet and Feeding

Groundhogs are herbivorous rodents. 

They have a primarily vegetarian diet, which includes a variety of plants, including grasses and other wild herbs. 

However, like most rodents, groundhogs may sometimes prey on small animals such as insects, snails, bird eggs, and other small animals. 

Groundhog eating grass
Groundhog eating grass / JamesBrey via iStock

Their preferred foods include clover, dandelions, buttercup, timothy grass, raspberries, buckwheat, wild lettuce, and alfalfa. 

Most of these plants are agricultural plants, and this sometimes causes conflict between them and farmers.

Groundhogs tend to graze on vegetation close to their burrows. 

They’re capable of standing on their hind legs to reach higher plants. 

Groundhogs are selective feeders. 

They often choose the most nutritious parts of plants, such as leaves and stems, which they cut with their strong and chisel-sharp incisors. 

Adult groundhogs can eat up to a pound of vegetation per day. 

Groundhog eating in a grassy field
Groundhog eating in a grassy field / image via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 3.0

Before winter, starting from early June, groundhog metabolism slows down significantly, increasing their weight by up to 100%. 

This allows them to accumulate enough fat deposits to survive their winter-long hibernation. 

Groundhogs don’t drink water. 

They get the needed fluid from plant juices and rain or dew on the plants they consume. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Groundhogs become sexually mature when they’re about one to two years old. 

Their breeding season is usually during spring, from early March till the end of April, shortly after coming out of hibernation. 

They’re polygynous, which means males get to mate with multiple females. 

Groundhog kin
Groundhog kin / Susan Sam via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

However, in some subspecies, females may mate with multiple males within the mating period. 

Woodchucks form temporary pairs during mating, and the couple will remain in the den throughout the gestation period. 

Gestation in groundhogs typically lasts for about 32 days. 

The male leaves shortly before the young are born, leaving the female alone to tend to the young. 

Groundhogs can give birth to one to nine offspring, but an average of about three to five is more common. 

Like other rodents, the pups are born blind and hairless.  

They remain in the burrow with the mother until they’re about six to seven weeks old. 

Groundhog offspring gazing from their burrow
Groundhog offspring gazing from their burrow / Oak Ridge National Laboratory via Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0

At this point, their fur is fully grown, and the mother introduces them to the wild. 

In some cases, the father groundhog may return to the nest at this time. 

By the end of August, the groundhog pups are fully grown, leaving the nest to form their own burrows. 

Groundhogs have a maximum lifespan of about six years in the wild, although most don’t live beyond three years. 

Their chances of survival are higher in captivity, where groundhogs have been known to live for up to 14 years. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

Groundhogs are primarily herbivorous, and they play a crucial role in their ecosystem. 

The feeding activities of this rodent can influence plant populations and the structure of local plant communities. 

Groundhog nibbling on leaves
Groundhog nibbling on leaves / Paul Danese via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

This makes them a keystone species in some ecosystems.

The burrowing activities of groundhogs are also good for their ecosystem.

Digging aerates the soil, allowing plants to absorb nutrients better and providing oxygen to the soil. 

Groundhogs are also important prey species for predators such as coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and badgers. 

These predators hunt groundhogs by sneaking up on them or digging them out of their burrows. 

In fact, the groundhog is the third most significant prey species of coyotes in Pennsylvania, United States. 

Young groundhogs are the most vulnerable, and smaller predators, including the American minks, timber rattlesnakes, hawks, and cats, can attack them. 

Young groundhogs sparring in play
Young groundhogs sparring in play / Ladycamera via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

The large size of the adults makes them less vulnerable to these predators. 

Groundhogs are also very alert and rarely stray too far from their nest, making it easier to escape when attacked. 

They can also climb trees and can defend themselves from predators when cornered. 

Conservation Status and Threats

The groundhog is presently categorized as a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Consequently, there are barely any conservation efforts in place to protect this species, but this does not mean they’re without threats. 

Habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activities such as urbanization, agricultural expansion, and development are some of the main factors threatening the survival of groundhogs.

Although they’re adaptable and can thrive near human development, woodchucks are still at risk of being killed by vehicles, human pets such as domestic hawks, and infectious diseases. 

Groundhog gathering dried leaves for its shelter=
Groundhog gathering dried leaves for its shelter / Cephas via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

In some regions, groundhogs are considered pests due to the damage their feeding and burrowing activities can cause to crops and gardens. 

This has led to trapping and other control measures that have drastically reduced their population in some regions. 

While no specific conservation programs exist for groundhogs, they may benefit from broader initiatives to preserve native ecosystems and biodiversity.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Groundhogs are exceptional diggers and exhibit extensive burrowing behavior. 

They are known to create burrows with intricate underground tunnels and multiple chambers that protect them from predators and harsh weather and provide a suitable place for hibernation. 

The most remarkable adaptation of this rodent species is their ability to hibernate throughout the winter season.

Unlike other rodents that store food ahead of winter, groundhogs go into hibernation. 

After ending its hibernation in February, the groundhog sources leaves to pad its nest
After ending its hibernation in February, the groundhog sources leaves to pad its nest / Ladycamera via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

During this period, their metabolism reduces significantly, and they survive on fat reserves in their body. 

Groundhogs also have well-developed senses. 

These senses help them detect potential predators or intruders while foraging above ground.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Groundhogs are well-known across various societies in North America, which is why they have so many names. 

Their most famous cultural association is Groundhog Day.

This event, which is celebrated on February 2 every year in the United States and Canada, has its roots in folklore and indigenous traditions. 

On Groundhog Day, many people gather to watch a groundhog emerge from its burrow after its winter hibernation. 

Groundhog Day celebration
Groundhog Day celebration / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

According to folklore, the groundhog will retreat into its burrow if it sees its shadow after emerging. 

If this happens, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. 

However, if it does not see its shadow and stays out, spring will arrive early. 

Groundhogs are also well-known to farmers across various locations where they’re considered an agricultural pest. 

However, experts think claims of damage caused by groundhogs may be exaggerated, and they’re not a significant threat. 

In some states, woodchucks are popular game animals, and they’re killed regularly for sports, food, or fur. 

Hunting of this species is typically localized and does not affect their populations significantly. 

Future Prospects and Research

Groundhog by its burrow, readying for hibernation
Groundhog by its burrow, readying for hibernation / Benoit BACOU via Getty Images

Groundhogs are among the few animals known for their ability to hibernate. 

Hibernation involves significant physiological changes. 

Understanding these changes can improve what we know about metabolic regulation in animals and organ preservation. 

We can potentially find applications for this knowledge in medical fields such as organ transplantation and cryopreservation.

Groundhogs are also used in medical research to aid our understanding of hepatitis B-induced liver cancer. 

The woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) is a common infection that affects some rodent populations. 

While this virus cannot be transferred to humans, the effects of the WHV on groundhogs are similar to the impact of the human hepatitis virus. 

A grown female groundhog
A grown female groundhog / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

This makes the woodchuck one of the best available candidates for studies to understand this virus. 

The alternative is to use chimpanzees, but since they’re an endangered species, woodchucks are the next best option. 


The groundhog is a large rodent native to North America. 

It is closely related to ground rodents (also known as marmots) and is one of the largest members of this group of squirrels. 

Groundhogs are burrowing animals. 

They graze on plants close to their burrow, which makes it easier for them to escape predators when threatened. 

They’re unique animals known to exhibit impressive adaptations, such as hibernating for several months during the harsh winter season. 

They’re famous in North America due to beliefs in their ability to predict the end of winter. 

Groundhogs are remarkable rodents and a key part of the local ecosystem. 

While they’re currently not threatened, local populations of this species are worth protecting because of their ecological significance. 


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