Where Does The Pesky Woodchuck Go?

5149859-clear-close-up-of-woodchuck-in-clover-fieldThat pesky woodchuck ( Marmota monax) is hibernating. Yes it’s true, and they are amazingly designed to do so. There are only three true hibernating mammals in the North East. The brown bat, the jumping mouse, and the woodchuck. Other mammals that you may not see and who often disappear during the colder months, like bear, skunk, or raccoons, are actually considered deep sleepers, not true hibernators. These animals do become inactive for part of the winter, but their body temperature remains higher than the surrounding air temperature, and they may stir occasionally to venture out during a warm spell. A true hibernator stays hibernating for the long haul. Knowing what I do about the woodchuck’s ability to hibernate, allows me some sympathy during the summer when he’s out munching our beans or enjoying the neat rows of greens in my garden. During the summer he is eating almost constantly to store fat for the winter. He will live on this fat for the entire time he spends underground in his burrow of grass and leaves, where he’ll curl into a tight ball ( less surface area) and remain for the next 5 months or so. Woodchucks generally go into hibernation from November to early April. At this point they are able to reduce their breathing rate and body temperature to extremely low levels. A hibernating woodchuck takes a breath about every six minutes. They are able to lower and maintain a body temperature of about 38 degrees, their normal body temperature being closer to 96.8. Its heartbeat will drop from its normal 80 beats per minute to about 4 beats per minute. During their time in hibernation they will lose about 47% of their body weight. They live the entire time absorbing stored body fat. There is really no fecal matter during hibernation because there is nothing moving through their digestive tract. Woodchucks, during hibernation, have an increase in brown fat deposits. This brown fat is usually found around an animals vital organs and along its back and shoulders. Brown fat has a higher rate of oxygen consumption and heat production than white fat. It’s the kind of fat you want to burn when sleeping through the winter. Considering the energy that it takes for a woodchuck to endure and survive a long Maine winter, I should be growing a row or two in my garden just for him. Fortunately, we have not had woodchucks in the gardens for a long, long time. Two patrolling dogs probably have something to do with this.
Years ago I spent a couple of winters teaching a winter ecology program in Vermont. I became fascinated with how plants and animals adapt to a cold climate. Understanding just how difficult it can be for plants and animals to acclimate to extreme winter temperatures, makes the arrival of spring and warmth even more of a celebration. We’ve had really cold temperatures lately, the woodstoves are eating up wood, and being outdoors means lots of layers. I think of the animals and plants who all have their unique ways of tolerating and surviving the cold. Amazing, really.

7 comments on “Where Does The Pesky Woodchuck Go?

    • It is supposed to warm up a bit here in the North as well. We do love the winter, even the cold temps. don’t bother us. The pace of winter allows us some downtime, and for this we are thankful. The cold does keep us rather mindful of all the plants and animals who are tolerating it , with an intention of greeting spring. Hope you have a cozy place to warm up….maybe fireside, drinking tea, and reading garden books!

  1. So interesting! We used to have a huge woodchuck living under our barn right near the veggie garden…he was the bane of my existence (not really, but a huge pest anywho).
    I am constantly amazed at the birds that come to our feeders on the coldest days in winter. They are so tiny and I marvel at how they always manage to keep going, hoovering up as much seed as their little bodies can manage!

    • Hi Amy,
      It does give a bit more thought as to how the animals and plants get through our tough winter climate. Those small birds, who can not really store much body fat, spend the entire winter literally shivering to generate heat and maintain their body temperature. Amazing. Nice that they have a reliable seed source at your feeders. We’re getting snow…how about you guys?
      denise

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