The Groundhog Species (Family, Type Of Animal and Relatives)

There is so much more to these floofy animals than just Groundhog Day. 

Aside from being used to predict the weather every year, little else is publicized about groundhogs and how they evolved into the cute little furballs we see today. Groundhogs are believed to have evolved from the pre-historic rodent, Vintana sertichi, and prefer to live alone in their intricately constructed dens. 

Keep reading for more information on the groundhog species.  

What Kind Of Animal Is A Groundhog?

Often mistaken for marsupials, the groundhog (Marmota monax), is a member of the rodent family and is also known as a woodchuck. These mammals are one of 14 species of marmots and are most commonly found in North America, along the edges of forests as well as in open fields and next to streams. 

Groundhogs are typically only about 27 inches long (including their tail), and can weigh up to 13 pounds. They maintain enormous burrow systems but are also skilled swimmers as well as climbers who can scale tall shrubbery and large trees. They are busiest in the morning and evening, munching on grass and other vegetation.  

Additionally, groundhogs are also classic hibernators, grazing heavily in the summer and early fall to build up fat reserves for the winter. The groundhog curls into a lifeless heap during hibernation. Its heart rate lowers to roughly 4 beats per minute, and its body temperature drops to that of the air temperature. 

Furthermore, unlike most mammals, groundhogs prefer to live alone, In fact, males will have no idea where females are most of the year and will only search for them when they are ready to mate.

What’s The Difference Between A Groundhog And A Woodchuck?

Groundhogs and woodchucks are the same animals, and the names for these mammals are used interchangeably. 

The name “woodchuck” is believed to be originated from the Algonquian Native American words for woodchucks (wuchak or wojak). It has not actually have anything to do with wood. In fact, woodchucks do not “chuck wood” but rather graze on fruits, grasses, and wildflowers.

The Algonquian people are Native North Americans who comprise one of the largest linguistic groups of Native Americans. They live in both New England and Canada (the same places as woodchucks, hence why settlers derived the name from the Algonquian word).

According to the Native American legend, wojak or wuchak was a spiritual ancestor for their tribe. Settlers seem to have picked up on this significance when they selected the woodchuck for their Candlemas celebrations. Those celebrations evolved into modern-day Groundhog Day.

People who live in areas with a large Algonquian presence or influence are more likely to call them “woodchucks.” People in the rest of the large area where these creatures are found are more likely to use “groundhog.”

Other nicknames for the groundhog include “whistle-pig”, “thickwood badger”, “red monk”,  and “Canada marmot”.

Why Do Some Call The Groundhog A Whistle Pig?

While the name “woodchuck” borrows its etymology from Algonquian, woodchucks have other names with more literal reasons for their names. The term groundhog describes where the creatures live (in the ground), and their rotund shape.

In some parts of North America groundhogs are also called whistle pigs and/or land beavers.

The name whistle pig describes their plump shape as well as the noise of their calling sound which resembles a shrill whistle.

Land beavers is similarly a descriptive name for woodchucks. The name places them as creatures who live on/in the solid ground (as opposed to beavers who dwell near water). It also defines them as creatures similar in appearance and behavior to beavers.

Woodchucks, groundhogs, whistle pigs… As Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In this case, a woodchuck by any name would burrow as deep.

How and When Did Groundhogs Evolve?

According to scientific research, the first pre-historic groundhog was believed to have existed alongside the dinosaurs on the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana. The Vintana sertichi, a rodent-like mammal weighing about 20 pounds, was thought to have a formidable bite and survived on a diet of nutty fruits, roots, and other seeds. 

Scientists recreated the creature’s five-inch-long cranium from fossil fragments found in Madagascar and discovered they were dated between 66 million and 70 million years ago. Over time, rodents’ jaws have become less formidable as the need for a powerful bite has become less necessary. 

Evolutionary Traits Of The Present-Day Groundhog  

Much of Gondwana became buried in water as it began to resemble modern-day North America. Because the groundhog needed to stay dry and warm, it began to develop oil-dispensing glands beneath the skin, to keep it safe from the water. 

Additionally, larger hands and longer claws became evolutionary advantageous because they allowed groundhogs to dig into the earth to stay dry. Further, as the descendant of the modern woodchuck persistently digs, its front limbs become tougher and more muscular. 

Because the early groundhog’s habitat becomes wetter, it develops webbed feet and a longer, more muscular tail for improved balance and mobility. Its underbelly also develops tougher skin to protect it from damp earth and rocks.

What’s The Groundhog’s Ancestor?

The scientific name for the Eastern groundhog is Marmota monax. The nickname “groundhog” is misleading because they are not members of the hog family. Instead, groundhogs are connected to the squirrel (Sciuridae) family, which also contains chipmunks and prairie dogs. 

Rodentia is the classified order, which is more encompassing than the family and contains both rodents and rodent-like species. All 2,000+ Rodentia species have powerful incisors and strong jaws.

Furthermore, most other members of the Sciuridae family are exceptional diggers, and groundhogs are no exception. They, like prairie dogs, use their front and back feet to dig long, intricate tunnels into the ground. To keep their burrows clean, the woodchucks use these tunnels to sleep, store food and defecate. 

What Animals Are Groundhogs Related To?

Groundhogs belong to the rodent family and most closely resemble, and are often mistaken for, these other mammals:

  • Squirrels
  • Prairie dogs
  • Marmots
  • Badgers
  • Capybaras
  • Beavers
  • Moles 
  • Voles
  • Gophers
  • Rats
  • Badgers
  • Hedgehogs

Prairie Dogs Vs. Groundhogs

Prairie dogs and groundhogs have similar appearances and are connected since they are both members of the rodent family. Groundhogs and prairie dogs share similar physical features and fur colors, yet the groundhog is much larger.

Prairie dogs are usually found in the western United States, living in large colonies, while groundhogs can be found in the eastern United States and Canada, and prefer to live alone. 

Marmots Vs. Groundhogs

Marmots are a vast group of rodents that include 15 different species found in Asia, Europe, and North America. All of these species are closely related to groundhogs and therefore look remarkably similar. All marmots have stubby legs, powerful claws for digging in the dirt, stocky bodies, and enormous heads.

Badgers Vs. Groundhogs

Badgers and groundhogs have very similar body types and fur coloring, and both live underground, but that’s about where the similarities end with these two animals. While groundhogs are grazing rodents, badgers are hunters and members of the weasel family. 

Capybara Vs. Groundhogs

The capybara is the world’s largest living rodent and is found in South America. The capybara is a very sociable mammal that may be seen in groups of up to 100 other capybaras and is commonly found in savannas, deep woods, and around bodies of water.

Similar to groundhogs, capybaras can chew on plants and grasses and munch on melons, fruits, and seeded plants with their long front teeth. Although they resemble woodchucks physically, capybaras lack tails and weigh substantially more than groundhogs.

Beavers Vs. Groundhogs

Beavers are another mammal that closely resembles the groundhog. To tell them apart, you must examine their weight and tails—beavers weigh about 5 times more and have broader, flattened tails, whilst groundhogs have short, fluffy ones.

Further, unlike groundhogs, beavers have an orange tint to their teeth due to the iron-coated enamel that allows them to gnaw on trees. Beavers build dams near lakes, ponds, and streams and mate for life, while groundhogs live alone in their underground burrows. 

Final Thoughts: The Groundhog Species

While most Americans only think about groundhogs every February, they are some of the most interesting, widely misrecognized mammals in the US. From hibernating to living alone, to examining evolutionary traits, these rodents are truly unique.