The Surprising Social Lives of Woodchucks

                                                                                                          Woodchuck photo credit: John Berry

Dr. Chris Maher, Professor of Biology and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Science, Technology, and Health at the University of Southern Maine, gave us a new perspective on these furry creatures that delight some and vex the gardeners. A behavioral ecologist, Chris’s primary research focuses on variation in social organization in mammals.

She started with an overview of factors influencing mammal decisions to stay close to their birthplace versus disperse to parts unknown. Many of us learned a new term – natal philopatry – which refers to animals choosing to remain near their birthplace to live and breed, rather than dispersing to new areas. (Some of us wish our progeny would exercise natal philopatry!)

Chris, who has been researching woodchuck populations at Gilsland Farm for 24 years, gave us a fascinating inside look at the logistics of field research. Watch the video for details, but let’s just say she may be a key ‘influencer’ on a population of punked-out woodchucks residing in Falmouth.

You can watch Dr. Maher’s presentation below, but here are some highlights to pique your interest:

  • Woodchucks are in the marmot family (along with squirrels), but are among the least social of the marmots.
  • Woodchucks DOUBLE their weight during the summer (this is no surprise to gardeners), to support them during their winter hibernation.
  • Closely-related mammals interact more amicably, although this can change with age and competition for food.
  • There are benefits and costs to sociality (living in groups). Watch the video for more details.
  • Woodchucks’ social habits may have changed over millennia, depending on the availability of good habitat. Today, human changes to the landscape may be forcing them into greater sociality.
  • Mother woodchucks sometimes suppress reproduction in their female young by stressing them (e.g. chasing them, displacing them from food and sleep)!
  • We should not live trap and relocate woodchucks as it makes them very vulnerable (they don’t know where food sources and safe spaces are) and it can transmit disease to new areas.
  • Ways to deal with nuisance woodchucks include: fences, predator scent (bobcat/coyote urine), harassing them (chasing, filling their burrows with rocks, to change the cost/benefit ratio of staying), moving compost heaps away from gardens.
  • Female territory is around 0.75 acres, males around 1.5 acres.

Here’s a question for you to ponder before watching the video, which Chris posed to the audience: What can you do to differentiate one woodchuck from another, from a distance, to facilitate your research (which involves hours of observing individual woodchucks with spotting scopes)? How can you mark them?

Another highlight – Chris gamely answered the question, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”