Punxsutawney Phil: The Groundhog Behind the Myth


(Editor's Update, Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 8:15 a.m. ET: Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning, meaning we should brace ourselves for six more weeks of winter.)

On Tuesday, Punxsutawney Phil will emerge from a little enclosure under an outdoor stump in the Pennsylvania town that bears his name to let us know if he sees his shadow, which will doom us to six more weeks of winter.

While this groundhog gets plenty of attention each Feb. 2, the other 364 days of the year America's most famous furry forecaster spends his time not in the ground but in an enclosure next to the children's section of the Punxsutawney Memorial Library with his "wife" Phyllis and a couple of other groundhogs.

"Phil is such an important marmot that humans built his lodgings. He lives in what we call a zoo, but it's a temperature-controlled space with wood and hay and other natural things in the habitat," said Tom Chapin, editor of Punxsutawney Spirit, a daily newspaper that covers local news, including "everything Phil does."

All Punxsutawney Phil does during the year (except on Groundhog Day) is eat, sleep and get his picture taken. But this furry mammal hasn't lost his wild instincts, it seems. One year in the past, the groundhog tried to escape. "They caught him right before he tried to run for the hills," Chapin said, adding, "If Groundhog Day comes around and the main man doesn't show up you have problems."

And it seems Phil may have some kind of "longevity genes," as handlers claim the woodchuck is 124 years old. His relatives live up to six years in the wild and just 10 years in captivity. The Phil of today, you might have guessed, is not exactly the same as Phils of yesteryear.

Phil's handlers also claim the animal's forecasts are spot-on every year. "He sees his shadow about 80 percent of the time and the other 20 percent he doesn't," said Bill Deeley, who was one of Phil's handlers, taking care of the groundhog for about 16 years. "He's pretty darn accurate," said Deeley, who is now president of the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle. The president is responsible for translating Phil's proclamation of whether or not he saw his shadow.

Here's the story behind the famous forecaster and why his wild relatives snooze over the winter months:

The legend of the groundhog's forecasting powers arguably dates back to the early days of Christianity in Europe when clear skies on the holiday Candlemas Day, celebrated on Feb. 2, meant an extended winter. The tradition was then brought to Germany, with the German twist being that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas, a hedgehog would cast its shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of bad weather. More specifically, the legend states: "For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May..."

As some of Pennsylvania's earliest settlers were German, they continued the tradition upon noticing a large population of groundhogs, which resemble the European hedgehog.

Phil and his groundhog relatives are pretty chunky mammals. A typical groundhog, also called a woodchuck or by its scientific name Marmota monax, weighs some 9.5 pounds (4 kg) with a body length reaching about 20 inches (0.5 m), at least those groundhogs living in Pennsylvania. (Punxsutawney Phil, not exactly svelte, weighs about 12 pounds, or 5.4 kg.)

"He's very well fed," Chapin said in a telephone interview. Like other groundhogs, Phil is susceptible to cholesterol problems and so it's best if he doesn't get too big, according to Deeley.

When living in the wild, groundhogs use their relatively short, powerful legs, clawed digits and large teeth to dig underground living quarters. And those habitats can be quite extensive, with as many as five entrances and various tunnels extending some 45 feet (13.7 m), and as deep underground as 5 feet (1.5 m).

During the summer, groundhog dens are usually constructed in open areas, while in the winter, the animals take up residence in dens under stumps and at the edges of rock ledges. When it's time to snooze, groundhogs stay put in a side chamber along the burrow system.

Hibernation generally begins in October and ends in March or April (not Feb. 2). During this deep sleep, groundhogs curl up into tight balls with their heads tucked between their hind legs. Their heartbeats slow from some 100 beats a minute to as few as 15; the body temperature drops from 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees C); and breathing slows. This depressed state allows animals to conserve energy and live off their fat stores during the harsh winter months when food is scarce.

While Phil doesn't go into a deep sleep like his outdoor pals, the groundhog does begin to slow down on eating and activities as the days get shorter. "Our groundhog will eat 12 months out of the year," Deeley told LiveScience. "He's like an eating machine from April until September 15," before he starts to slow down.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.