Groundhogs Contribute Useful Information About Diet and Metabolism, Colorado State Researcher Says

Punxsutawney Phil, that industrious Pennsylvania groundhog who emerges each Feb. 2 to study his shadow, can teach scientists something about the relationship between food intake and body mass, bringing greater understanding of the hibernation process, a Colorado State University scientist says.

Greg Florant, professor in the Department of Biology at Colorado State for more than a decade, has spent a large part of his career studying how marmots and ground squirrels use fats and other nutrients to hibernate.

"Although they’re thought – in fun – to be weather predictors, marmots may give us more clues about the regulation of food intake and body mass," Florant said. "Humans aren’t going to hibernate anytime soon. However, humans are mammals, so we share genes with these animals. But we don’t yet understand how genes orchestrate a major complex behavior such as hypometabolism – a regulated decrease in metabolic rate."

After receiving his doctoral degree from Stanford University in 1978, Florant taught at Swarthmore College for 10 years and at Temple University for five years before joining Colorado State. He teaches courses in comparative physiology, comparative anatomy and ecological physiology to undergraduate and graduate students.

His research interests are centered on the mechanisms that animals use to adapt to different environmental conditions. Recent investigations have focused on animals that hibernate and the mechanisms they use to regulate energy stores.

Tissue samples taken from marmots in Florant’s lab allow researchers to identify biochemical processes and genes that are active during hibernation – as opposed to genes that are active when they’re feeding or engaging in other behaviors.

The American Physiological Society, of which Florant is a long-standing member, recently called hibernators such as bears, woodchucks, hedgehogs and lemurs "medical marvels" because they can turn off their appetites and slow their breathing to a point that would be lethal to other animals. The American Physiological Society is a nonprofit organization committed to fostering education, research and dissemination of information in the physiological sciences.

According to legend, if the groundhog sees his shadow on Feb. 2, known as Groundhog Day, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. An early spring is likely if he doesn’t see his shadow.