Pam Keener and Pam Hewatt | For Savannah Morning News
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2021 at 6:30am EST
Groundhogs are burrowing animals that are celebrated every year in the United States on Feb. 2.
The groundhog is not alone in burrowing, but the shadow folklore gives this animal star treatment today. Other burrowing animals just keep digging.
Groundhog Day is thought to have originated from a European tradition called Candlemas Day. German churches would give out candles to bring hope during the long winter. If the sun was strong and the candles were not needed, it was believed that winter would stay longer. If the days were cloudy and more candles were needed, spring would come early. Upon arriving in the New World, the Germans noticed how the native groundhogs would come out of their burrows before the snow melted. The animals would patrol the area, then return to their burrows to continue their hibernation.
Maybe since Candlemas Day and the groundhog sightings happened around the same time each year, the folklore blended together and Groundhog Day was born! The groundhog, it is believed, must come out of its burrow on Feb. 2 each year. If it sees its shadow in bright and sunny weather, winter is predicted to continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog does not see its shadow, because of gloomy or overcast weather, an early spring is anticipated.
Many creatures, like the groundhog, dig burrows for shelter, safety, warmth or to give birth. These animals are equipped with the claws, legs or even snouts needed for digging. Animals that are not able to dig their own burrows may use abandoned ones, or even share the space with other species.
The gopher tortoise builds an elaborate burrow that is shared with over 300 other species. The indigo snake and gopher frog, for example, depend on the tortoise’s burrow for survival. Oatland Island is home to several animals known to be excellent burrow builders. The gray wolf, red fox, armadillo, rabbit and gopher tortoise are a few examples.
"Some burrow builders at Oatland, like the armadillo and rabbits, are such good excavators, they could dig out of their exhibits! Protective screen is placed under the soil in their enclosures to prevent escape." -- Pam Keener and Pam Hewatt
The red foxes at Oatland have built six burrows, but only two of them are deep enough to be utilized by the foxes. Red foxes usually dig burrows for raising their kits in the summer. Both the male and the female fox will participate in the construction of their den. When temperatures drop, foxes may use the burrows for warmth, but it is not truly necessary. They depend on their thick winter fur for protection from the cold. Therefore, the winter burrow may be much smaller than the summer birthing burrow.
Wolves also burrow. The previous wolf packs at Oatland dug an impressive burrow in the exhibit that lasted several years. Many wolf pup litters were born in there! In 2016, Hurricane Matthew destroyed the tree that the large tunnel was under, destroying the den forever. Since then, the newest Oatland pack has dug a new burrow under one of the fallen trees. The current den is shallow, about 3 feet high and 4 feet deep. Wolves tend to use the same burrow year after year, with well-defined trails leading to and from the burrow entrance.
Some burrow builders at Oatland, like the armadillo and rabbits, are such good excavators they could dig out of their exhibits! Protective screen is placed under the soil in their enclosures to prevent escape. Gopher tortoises, however, have no barrier underground in their exhibits. They dig deep burrows with only one entry, which is at a slightly downward angle. Gopher tortoises are unable to dig upward, so they are at low risk of escaping.
Visit Oatland Island Wildlife Center this year to celebrate Groundhog Day and all of Oatland’s incredible burrow builders!