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Woodchuck wonders!


Area couple's research, video makes way into Marmot Research Project laboratory at UCLA


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Woodchuck can't resist the phlox that grows on Joe and Sue Sam's Goodland Twp. property. photo by Susan Sam.

July 15, 2015
GOODLAND TWP. — What started out as a hobby research project has literally ended up in a lab at the University of California Los Angeles.

Film footage and information gathered by Sue and Joe Sam over the past decade found its way into the hands of Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, who is heading up the Marmot Research Project and writes the Marmot Minutes blog.

The Blumstein Lab at UCLA—referred to on the blog as 'Team Marmot'— shares information, statistics and the adventures of marmots from their long-term study of yellow-bellied marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado.

Blumstein was impressed with the film footage taken by the Sams in their own backyard, some of which includes rare interactions among the woodchucks that live there.

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"They've got great videos including males and young interacting (not thought to be too common) and other social interactions," Blumstein writes in the 'Marmot Minutes' blog. "Check them out at their YouTube channel: Chuckland!"

Catching Blumstein's attention is yet another interesting—perhaps even validating—milestone in the Sams' research project.

A painter and fine artist, Sue's talents extended to nature photography in 2003, when she began photographing 'Wilhelmina,' the name she gave to the first woodchuck the couple noticed on their property.

Observing the engaging animal's day-to-day actions changed the way Sue and Joe thought about woodchucks—and piqued their interest.

"Having contacted the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Vertebrete Zoology for information, they provided some literature suggestions," Sue says.

She ended up sending the Institution copies of some photos she had taken, and in a follow up conversation discussed what she'd observed.

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UCLA Professor and marmot researcher Dan Blumstein with baby yellow-bellied marmot. photo by Ben Blonder.
"I was asked if I had video. I didn't," she says. "So the first of several camcorders was purchased and filming began in 2005."

Since then, Sue and Joe have shot more than 320 hours of video, most of which features woodchucks in action.

Among the footage that impressed Blumstein was that of a "fight" between a male and female woodchuck. Sue says the cause of the fight between the father/daughter 'chucks is open to interpretation, but Blumstein acknowledged that rare as they may be, fights do occur.

"Fights are rare in well-established hierarchies...but even 'peaceful' animals can fight to the death," Blumstein says in an e-mail to Sue. "Well-matched animals can fight for a long time...there's a lot of behavior to prevent high level fights. Those two animals were very well matched, and/or one really wanted the resource...thus the long fight."

Blumstein plans to use some of the Sams' video footage of the fight and other woodchuck activity in his classroom; something that Sue is glad to offer.

"I am very pleased my video will be used for teaching Professor Blumstein's students the difference between play fighting and real fighting," Sue says. "Up until Joe and I witnessed this fight, I had not seen anything like this. It changed my perspective. Though it doesn't occur frequently, it did open my eyes to the fighting capabilities of the groundhog."

Helping educate others about woodchucks is important to Sue, who has given presentations at Lapeer's Chatfield School and to several civic groups and clubs around the area. She says it's important to remember that as "cute" as they may look, woodchucks are wild animals and should be approached with caution.

"In my talks to Chatfield children, I make it clear that we film from within our home and that they should not approach a wild animal," Sue says. "Groundhogs may give verbal warnings and they may charge if they feel threatened. Pay attention to warnings!"

Learning about the world of woodchucks has been a fascinating experience, Sue says, and she's passionate about sharing what she's learned.

"This project has never been motivated by anything but bringing enlightenment about the lives of woodchucks and their environment as we observe on our property," she says. "It has long been my view that the woodchuck is a persecuted and misunderstood animal."

Blumstein, along with marmot researcher Ken Armitage, is featured in a special segment in the 15th anniversary of the famed movie "Groundhog Day." Armitage launched the project in 1962; and they've since gathered information not only about the social habits of woodchucks, but the impact that environmental change—such as global warming—has had on their behavior and habitat. In the segment under 'special features' on the DVD, Armitage remarks that woodchucks are vastly under-studied.

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Sue Sam's film of two woodchucks engaged in a long fight caught the attention of marmot researcher and UCLA Professor Dan Blumstein. photo by Susan Sam.

To learn more about Sams' woodchuck research and to view photos and video of the marmots in action, visit www.woodchuckwonderland.com or visit the You Tube channel chuckland2009.

For more on the Marmot Research Project, visit marmots-ucla.blogspot.com, where Blumstein's July 9th entry gives the Sams' findings a plug.

"...if you like good marmot videos Sue and Joe have been creating many really interesting stories about the woodchucks that live in their backyard and have been filming the 'chucks and their behavior for a while now," Blumstein writes. "They have a Facebook page Woodchuck Wonderland that contains many of these stories. Worth a look! They've seen a lot of really interesting social behavior in this species that is typically considered not that social."

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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