Ken Armitage of Lawrence is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Kansas. Armitage has a national reputation as an expert on marmots and published a research book on them last June. When Sony released a 25th anniversary edition of the movie “Groundhog Day,” it filmed a segment with Armitage as an added feature. Armitage will speak at 2 p.m. Feb. 1 at Central Library; RSVP to kclibrary.org. This conversation took place at Armitage’s office at KU.
Your field of research is marmots. Does it bug you that everybody focuses on groundhogs to the exclusion of the other species of marmots?
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The main reason is that the groundhog is the atypical marmot. There are 15 species of marmot. Two are found at low elevation — the groundhog and the steppe marmot in Eurasia.
All the other marmots live at high elevations in the mountains. They have to cope with harsh environments, and one of the ways they cope is by being social and forming social groups. That to me is what is of primary interest in marmots.
The groundhog — yeah, well, I’m glad people know it, because when people say, “What is a marmot?” I can say, “You know the groundhog?” and they say, “Oh, yes, yes.” And I can say, “The groundhog is a marmot.” So at least they have some picture of what I’m talking about.
For Midwesterners, is the groundhog the species of marmot they are most likely to encounter?
It’s the only one they would encounter.
To encounter the yellow-bellied marmot, which is the one I spent my life studying, you need to go to the mountains in Colorado or Wyoming or Montana or California or Oregon and so on.
And would people in those mountainous regions know of groundhogs?
Yes, because of Groundhog Day. They would not encounter them.
Is there a logical reason we focus on the groundhog to try to predict the weather?
There is a historical reason. I’m not sure it’s logical.
We know the Celtic people start their seasons halfway between equinoxes and solstices, not at the beginning. Starting seasons at the beginning of the equinoxes and solstices started with the Sumerians, then it was picked up by the Romans. Halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox is February the 2nd. In the Irish tradition, that day was a big festival.
One interesting thing is, when Christianity moved into the Celtic culture, they tried to suppress this pagan festival and were unsuccessful, so they changed it into a Christian holiday called Candlemas Day. Where the Irish festival had bonfires for the goddess Brigid, the church took it over and paraded around with candles, because they were unable to suppress it.
The Celtic celebration was about the Earth’s womb becoming life-giving again.
I extrapolate from that: An animal emerging from its burrow is a sign of life coming from the Earth’s womb and so spring is coming. So that became the European tradition, only they used hedgehogs or badgers.
When they came to North America, there were no hedgehogs, no European kind of badgers. But there was this animal that came out of the ground at the right time to use it as an indicator, the groundhog.
But was it less reliable as an indicator, because it wasn’t the same animal the tradition started with?
It was equally reliable: Either way, you have a 50 percent chance of being right.