How much wood, and other monax mysteries

2 February 2013

[rescued, sort of, from the dust bin of the draft folder]

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It’s that time of year that we turn our attention to those beefiest of squirrels, the marmots. Marmota is a genus of large-bodied ground squirrel comprising fourteen or so species scattered about the mid to high-latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere, a distribution properly termed “Holarctic.” Both fossil evidence and genetic relationships among the species suggest a New World origin for marmots followed by dispersal across the Bering land bridge in the Late Pliocene into Eurasia (Steppan et al. 1999), though one North American species, M. broweri, the Alaskan marmot, appears to be a Pleistocene re-immigrant from Asia.

What’s in a name?

Growing up in California, I tend to think of marmots as animals of the high country. Yet the most familiar North American species, or at least the most of nicknamed is M. monax aka “woodchuck”, “groundhog”, “whistlepig”,”siffleur”, “land beaver” &c. (though I’m dubious whether that last really has any kind of currency.) “Woodchuck” is apparently something of an eggcorn, corrupted from an array names “wuchak/wejack/ojeeg” given by Algonquin-speaking tribes to quite another animal, the large North American weasel, Martes pennanti, now generally called a “fisher” (or misleadingly a “fisher cat”) but once known in some parts as a “woodshock.” This is another example of the twisted game of what might be called “Ojibwe whispers“, that confused chain of mistakes, miscommunications and misappellations that named the “New World” flora and fauna (see: wapiti/moose/elk, chipmunk, kinkajou, potato, alligator, turkey).

Though nowadays obsolete, I’m rather partial to the name used by most early naturalists, “monax,” a riff on an Algonquin word monham meaning “to dig” and a word that was apparently actually use by native peoples for the proper species, unlike wuchak. Pity that “monax” and it’s variants, monack, moonack etc. have all fallen into disuse and we’re left with two rather dull and more or less inappropriate alternatives, tongue-twisters aside.

Better know a marmot

Mark Catesby provides one of the earliest quasi-scientific accounts of the monax in an appendix to his landmark work Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, although the animal was no doubt was already quite familiar to European settlers:

MARMOTA America

The Monax

This animal is about the Bigness of a wild Rabbet: and of a brown Colour, the Head also resembles most that of a Rabbet, except that the ears are short, like the those of a Squirrel; the Feet are like those of a Rat, the Tail like that of a Squirrel, but much less hairy. It feeds on Bread, Fruit, and other Vegetable Diet. At certain Times they retire to their subterraneous Lodgings, and sleep continually a Month or longer together: They are Inhabitants of Maryland, Pensilvania &c. Their Flesh is esteemed good Meat. (Natural History … V. 2 xxvii)

What is this exactly? Not a monax.

Elsewhere in that same work Catesby illustrated an entirely different rodent (above), which he calls “Ciniculus Bahamaensis – The Bahama Coney” along with another brief description:

This creature is a little less than the common Wild Rabbit and of a brown Colour without a Mixture of gray Hairs. Its Ears, Feet and Tail resemble those of a Rat, in other Parts it is somewhat like a Rabbit. They feed wholly on wild Fruit and other Vegetables; When furpriz’d by Hunters they retreat to Holes in Rocks. Theif Flesh is efteemed very good, it has more the Taste of a Pig than that of a Rabbit. I take it to be nearly of the Kind of the Mus Alpinus or Marmot. (Ibid, 79)

Catesby’s “Bahama Coney” is almost certainly some species of hutia but the passing reference to a marmot confused a generation of European naturalists who took the two descriptions to mean that the monax or a similar species was distributed across the North American continent and the Caribbean islands.

By being fed with soft Meats, and Disuse to gnaw, its Teeth grew so long and crooked, that it could not take in its Food, so to preferve its Life, they were obliged to break them out. This Drawing was taken, as it lay by the Fire reposing itself

Around the same time, George Edwards illustrated an exotic rodent kept by his homeboy Sir Hans Sloane supposed to have been imported from Maryland, along with a brief account. While the behavioral notes recorded by Edwards are mostly consistent with M. monax, the short pelage, long, slender tail and elongate curved claws are at odds with the familiar characteristics of the true groundhog, and raise the question of which American rodent lounging around his fireplace Hans Sloane had knocked the teeth out of, exactly. In some respects, Edwards’ illustration seems even a better match for the West Indian hutias than Catesby’s “Bahama Coney”. But these guys, and their rodent associates are long dead and who really cares anyway?

Speaking of old dead dudes

From a letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson (May 12, 1786):

 You have, I believe, justly considered our Monax as the Marmotte of Europe. I have lately had an opportunity of examining a female one with some attention. Its weight, after it had lost a good deal of blood, was 51 lbs. Its dimensions, shape, teeth, and structure within, as far as I could judge, corresponded in substance with the description given by D’Aubenton. In sundry minute circumstances a precise correspondence was also observable. The principal variations were: 1″, in the face, which was shorter in the Monax than in the proportions of the Marmottc, and was less arched about the root of the nose. 2ui, in the feet, each of the forefeet having a fifth nail, about 3 of an inch long, growing out of the inward side of the heel, without any visible toe. From this particular it would seem to be the Marmotte of Poland, called the Bobac, rather than the Alpine Marmotte. 3rd, in the teats, which were 8 only. The marmotte in Buffon had 10. 4th, in several circumstances of its robe, particularly of that of the belly, which consisted of a short, coarse, thin hair, whereas this part of Buffon’s marmotte was covered with a thicker fur than the back, &c.

A very material circumstance in the comparison remains to be ascertained. The European Marmotte is in the class of those which arc dormant during the winter. No person here of whom I have enquired can decide whether this be a quality of the Monax. I infer that it is of the dormant class, not only from its similitude to the Marmotte in other respects, but from the sensible coldness of the Monax I examined, compared with the human body, although the vital heat of quadrupeds is said, in general, to be greater than that of man. This inferiority of heat being a characteristic of animals which become torpid from cold, I should consider it as deciding the quality of the Monax in this respect, were it not that the subject of my examination, though it remained alive several days, was so crippled and apparently dying the whole time, that its actual heat could not fairly be taken for the degree of its natural heat. If it had recovered, I intended to have made a trial with the Thermometer. I now propose to have, if I can, one of their habitations discovered during the summer, and to open it on some cold day next winter. This will fix the matter. There is another circumstance which belongs to a full comparison of the two animals. The Marmotte of Europe is said to be an inhabitant of the upper region of mountains only. Whether our Monax be confined to mountainous situations or not, I have not yet learnt. If it be not found as a permanent inhabitant of the level conntry, it certainly descends occasionally into the plains which are in the neighborhood of mountains.

 I don’t know if contemporary U.S. “statesmen” (lol) exchange letters about the natural history of small native mammals, but if not, it no doubt goes a long way toward explaining the contemporary atmosphere of partisan gridlock. I mean if a Federalist and an Anti-Federalist could come together to discuss the finer details of rodent metabolism, surely the deficit crisis is tractable?

Anyway

Candlemas is a reasonable enough time to check in on the weather, as if falls roughly midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. Animal activities have long been used to prognosticate future weather conditions, an impulse that clearly has its roots in sound observational awareness of the daily and annual rhythms that punctuate the natural world. Over-endowed with computational power and under-endowed with editing abilities, humans have woven these practices into an self-fulfilling hodge podge of absurd aphorisms and empty ritual. It was probably German immigrants that brought to the Americas folklore about the implications of seeing a mammal ambling about on Candlemas day, probably a badger or bear in the original telling. Somehow this folkloric forecasting exercise got transplanted to our beefy terrestrial squirrel, no doubt due to the obviously regimented seasonal activity cycle that sparked the curiosity of James Madison.

Go figure.

For what it’s worth – here in Nashville it snowed in the morning, rained mid-day and was sunny and clear by eventide. Oddly, I saw no rodents of any kind. But I did by a Twin Shadow CD. I think that means four more years of partisan gridlock.

One Response to “How much wood, and other monax mysteries”


  1. Interesting! Thanks for another great post.


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