Woodchucks, Rockchucks, and a Shadowy Holiday

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies  [i.e., the Rock Hyrax of Israel  —  a lagomorph mammal with a lifestyle ecologically similar to that of the “rockchuck” (marmot) rodents of America’s western mountain states].   (Psalm 104:18)

Woodchucks, Rockchucks, and a Shadowy Holiday

 Dr. James J. S. Johnson marmot-yellow-bellied-lowcrawling

What do we know, from the Holy Bible, about “marmots”, the herbivorous mammals we call “woodchucks” (or “groundhogs”) and “rockchucks”, other than that they were made on Day # 6, and that their ancestors were preserved during the global Flood by riding inside Noah’s Ark?

There is no specific mention in Holy Scripture, that designates the mammal family that we today call “marmots”, but the Scriptures do refer to rat-like rodents (‘achbarîm = “rats”) plaguing the idolatrous Philistines (see 1st Samuel chapters 5 & 6) —   plus another rodent (שָּׁפָן  = shaphan, the rock hyrax, less accurately known as “rock badger” or “coney”) that fills a marmot-like eco-niche in Israel:

 The rock hyraxes are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks.  (Proverbs 30:26)

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the rock hyraxes. (Psalm 104:18)

Israel’s rock hyrax (שָּׁפָן) is categorized with other “lagomorph” mammals – like rabbits, hares, and pikas, —  as a creature that practice hindgut fermentation digestion (involving a reingestion process variously called “cæcotrophy”, “refection”, “cecophagy”, “coprophagia”, or reingesting “night feces”) —  yet these small lagomorphs do not have divided hooves:

 Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that only chew the cud, or of them that only have the hoof cloven: the camel, and the hare, and the rock hyrax, because they chew the cud [literally: they fetch up partially digested (“stirred”) food for re-chewing] but part not the hoof, they are unclean unto you.  (Deuteronomy 14:7). RockHyrax.on-rocks.png

These two Old Testament verses describe 3 important traits of the rock hyraxes — (1) physiologically, they practice hindgut fermentation “refection” (i.e., hindgut-facilitated re-digestion); (2) anatomically, they have undivided (i.e., un-split) hooves, and (3) ecologically, they make nests in rocky habitats. It is the third trait – making homes in rocky places – that is ecologically comparable to many “marmots” that inhabit rocky places outside of the Holy Land.[1]  However, as we shall see, some of the marmot family – groundhogs (a/k/a woodchucks or “whistle-pigs”) – are known to live in non-rocky habitats.

In fact, it is the groundhog (Marmota monax), under its nickname “woodchuck”, that gives rise to this tongue-twister:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could, if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

 Now, to introduce the “marmot” family, first consider that it is classified as a squirrel-like mammal (family Sciuridae), having many traits in common with various squirrel “cousins” (tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, etc.):

 SQUIRRELS:    Sciuridae    This [taxonomic] family includes a wide variety of [herbivorous] mammals. Marmots, woodchucks, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and tree squirrels all belong here.  They have 4 toes on front [feet], 5 on back [feet].  Tail is always covered with hair, [and] is sometimes bushy.  All are active during the daytime except the flying [i.e., gliding] squirrels, which come out only at night.  Marmots, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and chipmunks all nest in burrows in the ground or beneath rocks or logs.  Tree squirrels and flying squirrels nest in trees.  Most of the ground-living species have a habit of sitting up “picket pin” fashion on their haunches.  This enables them to see over low vegetation and avert danger.  Ground squirrels and chipmunks have internal cheek pouches; most of them store food.

Quoting William H. Burt, A Field Guide to the Mammals, North America North of Mexico (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980; Peterson Field Guide Series), pages 90-91. In other words, marmots are a special category of large ground squirrels.


WOODCHUCK  (a/k/a Groundhog & Canada marmot —  Marmota monax)

This term is used to describe the “groundhog” – the smallest variety of marmot – that habituates the eastern half of the United States, as well as much of the boreal forest of Canada – as the range map [from Wikipedia] below shows.

Woodchuck.RangeMap-Wikipedia.png Canadian mammalogists have described the common Woodchuck as follows:

 The Woodchuck is our smallest marmot. It has brown dorsal fur grizzled with silver-grey, and a reddish-brown ventral pelage.  The head is dark brown with no white markings on the face; the fur on the sides of the neck does not contrast sharply in colour with the fur on the flanks and back.  The front legs are covered with reddish-brown hairs; the dorsal surface of the hind feet is dark brown to nearly black.  The short, nearly flat, bushy tail varies from dark brown to blackish.  …  The posterior pad on the sole of the hind foot is oval in shape.  …  [Ecologically speaking, it habituates] valley bottoms, lowlands and the lower slopes of the mountains, … [living in] open forests, recently cleared forests, agricultural fields, meadows, ravines associated with streams and rivers, road embankments, and campgrounds. In agricultural areas, Woodchuck burrows are most concentrated in edge habitats bordering fields and cleared areas.  Its elevational range in British Columbia is from 350 to 1,250 metres [i.e., ~1,150 feet to ~4,100 feet].

Quoting David W. Nagorsen, Rodents and Lagomorphs of British Columbia (Victoria, Canada: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2005; volume #4 in the Mammals of British Columbia series), page 136-137.

Groundhogs can reproduce quickly, like other rodents. That is helpful for maintaining Groundhog populations, because they are potential prey to several carnivorous predators, including wild canines (wolf, fox, coyote, dog), wild felines (cougar, bobcat, lynx), bears, and even large birds of prey (e.g., eagles).  Survival requires eating on a regular basis, of course, and groundhogs  — being mostly herbivorous – eat grasses of many types, as well as other lawn/meadow ground cover (e.g., clover, dandelions, alfalfa), berries, and even some agricultural crops.  Not completely herbivorous, Groundhogs will sometimes eat insects (grasshoppers, insect larvae, etc.), even snails or nuts.

woodchuck-aka-groundhog-by-tree  Groundhog burrows often have two (or more – maybe 5 or 10!) openings, a main entrance and a “spy hole”, as well as tunnels to the various entrances (to escape predatory home invaders). These underground dens serve various functions – climate control during winter hibernation months, safe haven form hungry carnivores, and various aspects of active family life.  Groundhogs even dig themselves an outhouse-like “excrement chamber”, separate from the “nest” quarters of the burrow.  Tunnelings near the surface can be annoying to human homeowners and farmers, depending upon the “environmental impact” of the Groundhog’s diggings.

The Groundhog has his own seasonal holiday in America (“Groundhog Day”), called Grundsaudaag or Murmeltiertag in Pennsylvania Dutch/German, and called Jour de la Marmotte in Canadian French.

Traditionally this special day is celebrated on February 2nd of each year – and its purpose is to predict whether spring will “come early” or not, i.e., to indicate if springtime-like weather will arrive before the vernal (spring) equinox, after which day the daylight hours “grow” and the nighttime hours “shrink”. So how do we “know” when spring weather will arrive?  If it is a cloudy day on February 2nd – when the groundhog emerges from his hibernation den – the woodchuck cannot see his shadow. For some (unexplained) reason the cloud-cover-prevented shadow is supposed to herald spring weather before the vernal equinox.  Contrariwise, if February 2nd is a sunny day – in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – the den-emerging groundhog should see his shadow (due to sunlight being intense enough to cast shadows), forecasting the marmot’s retreat-back-into-the-burrow, symbolizing that more winter weather is coming (and that spring weather will be delayed for another 6 more weeks). Some have said that this predictive “test” is accurate from 3/4 to 9/10 of the time – but others say this is accurate only about 4/10 of the time.  Groundhogs, being apolitical creatures (so far as we can tell), have indicated no official position about the truth or falsity of any supposed “global warming” crisis. groundhogday-cartoon-pic

(Interestingly this tradition was the inspiration for a uniquely Texas “holiday”, “Armadillo Day”, but that’s another “story” not to be covered here!)

In regions west, i.e., mostly west of the Groundhog’s usual habitat regions, many of its “cousins” live in higher elevations, in or near ranges of the Rocky Mountains (or Cascade Mountains). Rockchuck-aka-Marmot.in-rocks.jpg ROCKCHUCK  (various western marmots of North America  —  Marmota species, including the Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), as well as its western “cousins, such as the Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata), the Olympic Marmot (Marmota olympus), and the Vancouver Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis). Unsurprisingly, the name “rockchuck” refers to the rodent’s observable habitat  —  this variety of marmot is found in America’s Great West, especially in (though not limited to) the rocky timberline elevations of America’s Rocky Mountains, where alpine meadow vegetation suffices for such herbivores.


Rockchucks are social creatures, living near one another, and the nickname “whistler” (or “whistle-pig”) refers to their practice of whistling alarm when danger approaches. The rockchuck prefers “flight” to “fight” – scurrying for cover inside a rocky hideaway, if a potential predator is perceived as too close.  Some rockchucks, however, have become accustomed to peaceful tourists — and may even approach humans in hope of food, such as a salty PAYDAY candy bar![2]

YELLOW-BELLIED MARMOT  (rockchuck mother and her nursing pups)

Of the western marmots the Yellow-bellied Marmot is the most populous. Its range stretches from as far south as the Sangre de Cristo Range (in New Mexico and Colorado) up into Canada.  Yellow-bellied Marmots reside as far east as parts of South Dakota and the western edge of Nebraska, and as far west as all but the coastal edge of Washington and Oregon, even inhabiting small edges of California. marmot-yellowbellied-rangemap

This variety of rockchuck lives near timberline in the western states of America, yet in Canada it lives at lower elevations (e.g., < 1300 meters in British Columbia).

HOARY MARMOT  (a/k/a “mountain whistler” — Marmota caligata)

Another variety of rockchuck is the Hoary Marmot, famous (as its name suggests) for its “senior citizen” hair color, i.e., its fur is dominated by silver-grey.  Hoary marmots tend to live in mountainous places  — but only in America’s northwest corner (i.e., Idaho, Montanan, and Washington), plus montane lands in western Canada and Alaska, north of that corner.  This is the “extra-large”-sized marmot. Marmot-on-rock.closeup.jpg

Perhaps this tongue-twister could be used for the Groundhog’s western cousins:

How much rock would a rockchuck rock, if a rockchuck could rock rock?

But marmots don’t “rock” rocks!  However, being rodents, with ever-growing front teeth, rockchucks might use a somewhat-flat rock as the equivalent of an emery board – to file down his teeth! Maybe doing so provides access to rock-borne minerals that the marmot needs.  Anyway, marmot teeth should be respected, especially by mountain hikers who take naps at timberline.   ><> JJSJ


[1] Notice that the Rock Hyrax of Israel is a lagomorph that behaves, ecologically speaking, like the rodents that we call marmots (i.e., rockchucks and woodchucks). This illustrates how animal ecology does not slavishly follow taxonomy.

 Biomes … have animals which occupy particular roles within the ecosystem, tapping particular environmental resources.  These may differ very considerably in their taxonomy from one part of the world to another, but are nevertheless ‘ecological equivalents’.  For example, the South American pampas is grazed by the guanaco [a camel-like mammal], which is the [ecological] equivalent to the Australian kangaroo [a marsupial mammal], the Asiatic ass [an equid mammal] and the North American bison [a bovine mammal] in that it is a relatively large, fast-moving herbivorous animal living in herds.

Quoting Peter D. Moore, “The World’s Biomes”, in The Encyclopedia of Animal Ecology (Oxford, England: Equinox Books, 1991; edited by Peter D. Moore), page 40.

[2] Many years ago this author was hiking up Horn Peak (in the Colorado portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost sub-range of the Rocky Mountains). Horn Peak’s elevation is listed as 13,450 feet (4100 meters), slightly above Little Horn Peak (elevation: 13,143 feet/4006 meters).  On a group hike I tired above Little Horn Peak but below the summit of Horn Peak.  Thoroughly exhausted – crawl, rest, crawl, rest, crawl, rest, rest some more – I lay down on the ground for a shut-eye/nap, covering my face with a sweaty (and therefore salty) cloth handkerchief, to avoid getting my face sun-burned while I dozed.  (Having told other hikers what I was doing, as they continued to ascend to the summit, I requested that I be awakened by them on their return trek, as I expected them to return to where I was on their descent, later.  After sleeping for an unknown amount of time I was awakened by someone removing the white handkerchief form my face – it was the up-close face of a Yellow-bellied Marmot!  (I screamed: “What are you doing?” – forgetting that marmots don’t speak English.)  I was rattled!  I had scared the marmot (who perhaps was attracted to the salt on my sweaty handkerchief), but only momentarily.  The marmot gingerly wandered back closer to me, looking at me expectantly – apparently other hikers had given snack food to this marmot, and he was expecting me to do the same.  All that I had remaining, then, of my trail snacks, was a PAYDAY candy bar – a treat composed of peanuts, caramel, and salt – which he gulped down instantly!