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How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a wood chuck could chuck wood?

Published: 19th June, 2022 at 07:00
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It's time to answer one of science's greatest questions.

There are many big questions philosophers have pondered for years: What is the meaning of life? Can humans truly be good? How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

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While inherent evil and life’s true purpose are slightly too complex for us to answer right now (next time, we promise), the rodent related tongue-twister is slightly easier for us to attempt an answer.

What is a woodchuck?

Firstly, what even is a woodchuck? That feels like a good place to start to understand its chucking ability.

A woodchuck, more commonly referred to as a groundhog, is a rodent. It is part of the Sciuridae family and belongs to a group of large squirrels often referred to as Marmots.

If the term groundhog sounds more familiar to you than woodchuck, you won’t be alone. For Americans, the term will be heard yearly on Groundhog Day – an event where a rodent supposedly predicts the weather. For non-American fans, we’re sure you’ll be familiar with the Bill Murray film of the same name.

© Saurabh Raj Sharan Photography
© Saurabh Raj Sharan Photography

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Unsurprisingly, no scientist has tracked down a groundhog and tested its ability to lob wood around. But if one was to suddenly develop the skill to chuck wood around the place, how much could it throw?

There have been a couple of attempts to come up with the answer to this question, most of which fall short on both realism and scientific scrutiny. The most frequently quoted and well-thought-out answer comes from Richard Thomas, a fish and wildlife technician in 1988.

This was a question he took seriously, checking the definition of the term 'chuck' and deciding it to mean tossing aside. His belief was that, while woodchucks don’t actually throw wood, they do toss dirt in the process of digging out their burrows – a very similar action by definition.

In his research, Thomas found that woodchucks weigh between 5 to 10 pounds (2-4 kilograms), with thick strong legs that are perfect for burrowing.

Next, he examined the average size of a woodchuck’s burrowed home, estimating an average of 35 square feet (10 square metres).

Thomas did a bit of math, multiplying 35 square feet by 20 pounds, the approximate weight of a square foot of soil, to achieve what he believed to be the best answer possible.

This led Thomas to give the answer of 700 pounds of wood. Is it a scientific answer…? Well, it is the closest to an accurate answer we have!

Unfortunately, until woodchucks develop the ability to actually chuck wood, we'll never really know for sure!

So where did the name woodchuck come from?

If woodchucks can't actually chuck wood, where does the name come from? Most experts believe the name comes from a tribe of Native Americans who originally called them 'wuchak'. English settlers then morphed the name into a more anglicised woodchuck.

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Authors

Alex is a staff writer at BBC Science Focus. He has worked in technology and science journalism since graduating in 2018 with an interest in consumer tech, robotics, AI and future technology.

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