- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

This might cast a whole new light on Punxsutawney: That town's groundhog is not coming out of his den to check out the weather. He's checking out the babes.
So says Stam Zervanos, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University, who studied the amorous behavior of 32 groundhogs for four years.
When they emerge from their burrows in early February, male groundhogs are scouting their territory for potential mates and wooing a few, too.
"Yes, it's kiss-and-make-up time," Mr. Zervanos said yesterday. "This is a prelude to mating. He goes over to her place, and she actually sets the agenda. But then he'll also visit as many female burrows as he can. He's getting his dance card ready."
The research should tickle the folks up in Punxsutawney. Groundhog Day has become a three-day event in this Pennsylvania town, with international news coverage, beauty contests, pancake breakfasts and considerable marketing.
Official groundhog mascot Punxsutawney Phil is the town's registered trademark, emblazoned on shot glasses, T-shirts, kitchen magnets, toys and dozens of other collectibles.
But Phil is not without romance.
The town has established "Phil's Wedding Chapel" in its civic center. Phil, just like Elvis in Las Vegas, adds his cachet to local nuptials.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zervanos does not fret that his new findings will besmirch the legend of Groundhog Day. The tale holds that the groundhog that emerges from his den Feb. 2 and sees his shadow foretells six more weeks of winter weather.
"No, this research only enhances the legend," Mr. Zervanos observed.
But are groundhogs, well, romantic critters? Is there a groundhog mating dance or some flirtation perhaps?
"Well, there's some nose rubbing, and certain postures that we've studied," Mr. Zervanos said. "But an awful lot goes on in the burrow."
There's considerable territory for the furred Casanovas to cover.
Each male groundhog has a kingdom as big as an acre and a half plenty of space for a creature who weighs in at six pounds and is the size of a breadbox.
But they are intrepid, and many take an indiscriminate approach.
Mr. Zervanos watched one fellow make the 300-yard journey to a lady friend's burrow. She came to greet him, they went inside and stayed secluded for two days. Then he moved on to the next lady's burrow, just down the way.
"Afterwards, all three groundhogs stayed alone in their burrows experiencing episodes of deep torpor," the research report noted.
Deep torpor notwithstanding, the females are preoccupied with a snack or two during these interludes. They are attentive to their suitors, but quite attuned to food availability around them, the report shows.
"You can get attached to groundhogs," Mr. Zervanos admits. "But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Farmers and gardeners consider them real pests."
Mr. Zervanos went to considerable lengths to collect his groundhog data, affixing temperature transmitters to some of the groundhogs and using infrared cameras to record their comings and goings.
There is a global audience for such a thing: Mr. Zervanos reported his findings recently at the Fourth International Conference on Genus Marmota held in Montreux, Switzerland.
On average, he found that groundhogs nod off around Nov. 7 and awaken for good Feb. 28. The males generally hibernate 106 days, while the females like to sleep in 117 days.
The early connubial visits have a practical reason behind them, though.
"It would appear that the early bonding activity and establishment of territories in preparation for mating ensure optimum conditions and timing for reproduction and offspring survival," Mr. Zervanos said.

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