Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

ECOVIEWS: Groundhog No Match for Smartphone Weather App

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

ECOVIEWS: Groundhog No Match for Smartphone Weather App

Article excerpt

So is cold weather nearly over for the year or can we expect six more weeks of winter? On Feb. 2, known to most as Groundhog Day, Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil will give his answer. Don't try to figure out why winter should continue for exactly six weeks or end more quickly -- just enjoy the tradition. And certainly don't try to make any sense out of the notion that a giant rodent that lives in a hole in the ground and comes out to look for its shadow in February would be any better at predicting the weather than the weather app on your smartphone.

Though a discussion of winter weather prognostication, a centuries-old tradition, would be interesting, a look at groundhog ecology seems more suitable for an environmental column. A recently published book ("Mammals of Alabama," 2014, University of Alabama Press) by Troy L. Best and Julian L. Dusi answers the ecological questions people might ask. Because Alabama has such a high diversity of native mammals, the book covers the biology of most mammal species in the country, especially for the eastern states. A map shows the geographic range of groundhogs: from Alaska, across southern Canada and the northern states, to New England and southward to most of the Southeast.

Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, are rodents in the squirrel family. The family also includes chipmunks, tree squirrels and flying squirrels. Groundhogs are in a group known as marmots, their closest relatives being yellow-bellied marmots (rock chucks) in western states.

Like other rodents, groundhogs have two upper and lower incisors in the front of the mouth, but no canines. The powerful front teeth can gnaw through any type of plant material, including bark, roots and hard-shelled nuts. Their teeth grow throughout their lives. Without constant gnawing to keep them trimmed back, they would become longer and longer.

According to the book, groundhogs "are vocal animals and may squeal, chatter, bark or give a loud, shrill whistle." If an animal feels threatened by a predator in the vicinity, the whistle presumably serves as an alarm system for other members of its immediate family. A groundhog will typically head for one of the holes leading into a burrow, which can serve as protection not only from predators, but also from wildfires and inclement weather. …

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