Can groundhogs or other animals predict the weather?

Can groundhogs or other animals predict the weather?

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Punxatawney Phil, the central figure of the annual winter ritual known as Groundhog Day, is not good at his job. His predictions are wrong more often than they are correct.

On Friday, the forecasting marmot did not see his shadow, signaling the beginning of spring. However, technically, winter will end on the vernal equinox, which falls on the evening of March 19.

But the groundhog is just one of many animals that, according to folklore, possess an uncanny ability to predict the weather, including cows that are said to lie down before an early rain, and the caterpillars of woolly bears that are supposedly decorated in fewer colors before the harsh winter. .

Most of these connections are irrelevant to modern science, but there is the occasional hint of documented fact among the legends.

Phenology is the study of how seasonal events in the lives of plants and animals change depending on weather and climate, such as how migratory fish or birds respond to water and air temperature. (The field of study can be practiced as a hard science, which is quite different from the pseudoscientific “phrenology”).

The US National Phenology Network is tracking when environmental signs of spring arrive across the United States, and the season is already in full bloom in certain locations on the East and West coasts.

Although Punxsutawney Elephant is not a reliable indicator of spring, phenology provides scientific support for other seemingly superstitious intuitions about the natural world, said Teresa Crimmins, director of the US National Phenology Network.

“People have been monitoring (environmental conditions) for thousands of years, ever since humans have been around,” Crimmins said. “So (a lot of these proverbs) actually work because, to some degree, they capture those relationships between environmental conditions and plant response.”

But while folklore often assumes that animal behavior foretells future weather events, plants and animals actually interact with weather and climate.

Plants and their forecasts

The roots of Groundhog Day lie in traditions that were likely imported to the United States from Germany, where the winter-predicting animal was a badger, not a groundhog.

However, many tried-and-true proverbs about the natural world come from Native American people.

“One example is planting corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear,” notes an article on phenology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You know that growing corn has nothing to do with oak leaves or squirrels. However, Native Americans noticed centuries ago that the soil was warm enough to prevent the seeds from rotting, yet it was still early enough to reap a suitable crop if corn was planted in this the time.

Crimmins points out that there are many other predictions of upcoming environmental events that appear in the leaves, fruits and flowers of plants.

For example, the Shadblue Serviceberry is a small tree native to parts of eastern North America, and its name is thought to come from the fact that it bears flowers at the same time of year that shad begin their river migration. The Lenape and other Native American people had long noticed this phenomenon and prepared to hunt when the plant began to flourish.

Animals and extreme weather

The Old Farmer's Almanac compiled a few dozen proverbs about insects and animals and their ability to predict weather patterns.

Some claims are questionable. For example, dogs eating grass are likely to be a less accurate indicator of rain than a weather report from a meteorologist.

But there is research indicating that some animals may have an innate sense that helps them detect a disaster on the way.

For example, golden-winged warblers evacuated an area in Tennessee more than 24 hours before a devastating series of tornadoes hit the area, according to a December 2014 study published in the journal Current Biology.

The study's authors speculated that migrating birds heard infrasounds — sounds at frequencies too low for humans to hear — associated with storms and heard them as a warning sign.

Researchers in Germany also investigated whether different species of animals could detect an impending earthquake. Scientists found that animals, including cows, sheep and dogs, collectively showed greater activity up to 20 hours before the earthquake, according to a report by the German Max Planck Society, a non-profit association of research institutes.

Insects and frogs

There's also truth to the idea that cockroaches can serve as nature's thermometer. These insects are ectotherms, meaning their body temperature changes with the temperature of their surrounding environment, and they routinely chirp faster in warm weather.

According to Dolbert's Law, a formula that describes this connection between cockroaches and the weather, “you can count the number of chirps per 15 seconds, add 40, and that will give you the temperature in Fahrenheit,” notes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Frogs also make unique calls when it is about to rain.

“Numerous 20th-century herpetologists have confirmed and clarified the traditional observation that various species of frogs sometimes emit a distinctive sound, the 'rain call,' shortly before wet weather,” said Dr. Gordon Miller, professor emeritus of environmental studies. At Seattle University, via email.

These calls “may be due to high humidity prior to the rain,” Miller said.

However, other metaphors about animals' ability to predict seasonal conditions are wrong.

The woolly bear — a type of caterpillar, also called the woolly worm — is believed to predict the harshness of the impending winter with its colorful bands. More black on an insect is supposed to indicate harsher conditions on the road.

But in reality, “larval coloration depends on how long the larvae have been feeding, their age, and their species,” according to the National Weather Service. “The better the growing season, the greater the growth. This results in red-orange bands that are narrower in the middle. The width of the bands is therefore an indicator of the current or past season’s growth and not an indicator of the severity of the coming winter.”

Climate change and phenology

Crimmins stressed that the animals' unusual behavior could also be a response to climate change. And often not in good ways.

Crimmins noted that the climate crisis and human development are causing all kinds of environmental problems. Bears, for example, hibernate later and wake up earlier due to warm weather. This could lead to more human-bear interactions, as bears search for food, and there is concern about how short periods of hibernation affect bears' pregnancies.

Miller added that while frogs may be able to predict rainfall, “as so many amphibian species continue to decline due to various environmental and climatic factors, perhaps their most obvious call to us today is, as Rachel Carson noted of birds in 1962, that Their diminishing chorus and growing silence.

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