Groundhogs, Out of the Shadows of Science

FALMOUTH, Maine – Groundhog Day may be a holiday in the cheek, but it’s still a marked day in the United States for one animal: the Marmota monax, the largest and most widely distributed species in the world. genus marmot, found on flowering plants – or, at this time of year, burrowing underground – from Alabama to Alaska.

However, for all their cultural prominence, the platforms remain the same, in a bit of a shadow. Relatively little is known about their social life. They are considered solitary, which is not entirely wrong, but also not entirely correct.

“These people are a lot more social than we thought,” said Christine Maher, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Southern Maine and one of the few scientists studying groundhog behavior.

Dr. Maher came to Maine in 1998 with a keen interest in the sociability of animals. Marmots, a genus of 15 different social species – including alpine marmots living in multi-generational family groups, semi-social yellow-bellied marmots and antisocial appearance – is a natural host .

She found an ideal research site at Gilsland Ranch Audubon Center, a 65-acre reserve with rolling grasslands and forests on the shores of Falmouth, Maine. There, she tagged no fewer than 513 groundhogs, tracking their fates and relationships in detail.

The resulting family trees and territory maps, along with records of their interactions and daily activities, are singular. “No one looks at them over time as individuals,” says Dr. Maher.

Gilsland’s worms won’t show up until late February, but one morning last summer, Dr Maher set up live peanut butter bait traps around a bushy burrow next to the centre. traveler. Peanut butter soon proved irresistible.

The trap allows you to get a rare close-up view of a ground porcupine: beautifully solid, with small, serious eyes, a delicate beard, and coats that range from fawn over its broad chest to its wide chest. chestnut brown, straw and stubble on the whole body. One round ear has a small copper tag with the number 580.

“This is Torch,” said Dr. Maher, who names each of her subjects. Torch became a mother for the first time. Dr. Maher skillfully moved her into a thick bag for safe weighing. She also took a hair sample for later DNA analysis and measured how much Torch flexed over several 30-second intervals – a simple personality test.

After returning Torch to her lair, irritated but unharmed, Dr. Maher began a tour of Gilsland. She checked a few of the traps that were still empty to find Barnadette, who was raising her baby mice underneath an old cage. Near the barn is a large community garden and their compost pile.

As anyone whose vegetable garden has been visited by ground beetles can attest, the arrangement created a certain amount of stress. Charles Kaufmann, one of the garden’s coordinators, admits that conflicts with the gardeners did occur, but were resolved peacefully. Among their peacekeeping tools are soft hedges that ground beetles struggle to climb.

“Audubon is about preserving and appreciating the natural world,” says Kaufman. “We feel bound to live within that perspective and philosophy.” Also, “subterranean mice are just the cutest things in the world.”

Along the newly mowed path leading from the garden into the meadow, Dr. Maher spotted a ground hedgehog. Through her scope, she identified Athos, an aspirant and sibling of Porthos and Aramis.

She named them after the Three Musketeers, which was a trick to help her remember them—but it was also fitting. A few days ago, she had observed them hanging out together at the cave where they were born.

Such interactions belie the species’ reputation for solitude, and conventional wisdom holds that juvenile worms leave home in search of new territory just months after they are born. In Gilsland, Dr Maher found that about half of all minors stay in the territory where they were born for a year. When they finally depart, they are usually nearby.

“It depends on whether they can come to an agreement with their mother,” Dr Maher said. “Some mothers are willing to do that. Others are not. “Mothers may even leave territories to their daughters. Dr. Maher suspects that Athos’ mother has left the Athos family’s lair.

As groundhogs mature, their interactions become less friendly – the Three Musketeers most likely won’t be together much longer – but they’re not quite the opposite. Dr. Maher has also found that her background is more family-friendly than unrelated.

The result is a community of related groundhogs whose territories overlap. Some individuals venture further or further away, which helps keep the gene pool fresh – but the kinship-based structure remains. The background of Gilsland Farm can be understood as living in something like a loose clan, whose members keep their distance but still go back and forth and maintain a bond.

“You have this whole network of sisters living together, aunts, cousins, extending outwards,” Dr. Maher said. “This has been suggested, but I don’t think people just know to what extent it’s happening.”

Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who led a long-term study of yellow-bellied bugs at the Rocky Mountain Biology Laboratory, says that Dr. enhancing our understanding of the benefits of having social relationships.” He added, “She is allowing us to appreciate more the nuanced complexity of social relationships. less face-to-face with you.”

An open question is whether the patterns Dr Maher saw at Gilsland Farm are common in other porcupine populations. Their behavior can vary depending on local circumstances, she said.

The Gilsland Farm terriers live on a habitat island; The west is an impassable seaport, the east is a dangerous highway. To the north and south are suburban residential areas rich in potential to live, but there are always homeowners who don’t come. Dr Maher said: ‘They are known as scarab beetles. “People don’t seem to think much of them.”

When young ground beetles leave the Gilsland farm, they tend to run over or shoot. So there are advantages to staying at home, as long as there is enough food available. There are also shared interests: For example, a siren of an approaching fox will be heard by everyone nearby.

Given the evolutionary advantage of birds, the genes of social dogs are more contagious than those of more solitary species, and Dr Maher thinks it actually represents a return to nest-like status. first. Before European colonization, groundhogs would have lived in forests – created by fires, storms, beaver activity, and native practices – separated by inhospitable forests.

“They are forced to live closer together, so they are more tolerant of each other and more sociable,” she said. “When the Europeans cleared that entire forest, they really increased the amount of habitat available for the ground beetle. Maybe they become less social because they can spread out. ”

However, neighboring areas need not be dangerous. Dr Maher hopes that a deeper appreciation of groundhogs’ sociability might help people become more sympathetic to them and even amiably share suburban landscapes with them, as humans do. gardeners at Gilsland Farm do.

Her work is also interspersed with some non-scientific endeavors, such as her social media presence. Chunk the Groundhog – followed by more than 500,000 people on Instagram – and amateur naturalists whose 15 years of backyard observations have yielded unique intimate accounts Woodchuck Wonderland.

“People often don’t have insight into how they live,” says John Griffin, director of the Urban Wildlife Program at the Humane Society of the United States. In his own work, Mr. Griffin often encounters the feeling of intruders. The lack of familiarity – for all their ubiquity, the stands are often only glimpsed along roadside banks or dashed for cover – leads to intolerance or a feeling, he suggests. excessive risk.

Appreciate that animals have a social life that can change their perspective, says Griffin. “I don’t know how to quantify it, but I think it’s worth it,” he said. “Conflict resolution is all about perspective.”

Tolerance will bring more benefits than background knowledge. Dr Maher said their digging helps to aerate and enrich the soil, and many other creatures use their burrows. A groundhog’s burrows can even create hot spots local biodiversity.

Athos, at least, will be spared the suburban gloves. “The fact that she hasn’t left yet makes me think she will stay,” Dr Maher said.

Athos moved slowly along the path, eating clover and dandelion, which would sustain her through the coming winter. She usually stands on two feet and looks around. Dr. Maher records her activities on a handheld computer.

When an approaching pedestrian sent Athos tumbling into the tall grass, Dr. Maher explained how the system worked. “I just entered a two-letter code for their behavior,” she said. “Feeding. Walk. Alarm. Run. Groom. Dig every now and then. They don’t have a huge repertoire.”

She seems a bit smug about this. Passers-by, she admits, sometimes get amused when she spends so much time looking at seemingly boring creatures.

With a rustle, Athos returned to the path. “Oh, here she is!” Dr. Maher exclaimed, the enthusiasm in her voice suggesting that, after all these years, she still finds the backgrounds quite interesting. Groundhogs, Out of the Shadows of Science

Fry Electronics Team

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