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Can Animals Predict the Weather?

Punxsutawney Phil groundhog day science naturally weather predictions STEM animals animal behavior

Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow around 7:30 a.m. ET on February 2, 2019, and did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring for us all.

The History of Groundhog Day

As the legend goes, if Phil sees his shadow it is a prediction of six more weeks of bad weather and he heads back into his hole. If it's overcast and he doesn't see his shadow, it is supposed to mean spring will arrive early.

But why do groundhogs emerge in February, when winter isn't over yet? The answer lies in their social structure. Most of the year, male and female groundhogs are solitary and antagonistic against each other. They aggressively maintain a feeding territory around their burrows and rarely have any contact with each other. February is used to reestablish the bonds necessary for mating and ensures that mating can then proceed without delay in early March. So, essentially, Groundhog Day is like a Valentine's Day for groundhogs!

Groundhog Day appears to have European roots. Early February is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and throughout history this seasonal crossroad has been celebrated by different cultures in a variety of ways.

The ancient Greeks and Romans observed a mid-season festival on February 5th in anticipation of spring. In the Celtic tradition, this period was celebrated as the festival of Imbolog to mark the beginning of spring. Early Christians in Europe embraced this tradition and celebrated Candlemas Day on February 2nd, to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary. Customarily on this day, clergy would bless candles and distribute them to the people in the dark of winter in anticipation of spring.

In 1887, an editor of a Punxsutawney newspaper declared Phil America's official weather-predicting groundhog. Newspapers across the country picked up the story, and the tradition caught on, bringing us to the tradition we have today.

How Accurate are Punxsutawney Phil's Predictions?

Punxsutawney Phil groundhog day science naturally weather predictions STEM animals animal behavior

In the past ten years, Phil has predicted a longer winter seven times and an early spring three times. He was only right about 40% of the time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which says the groundhog shows "no predictive skill."

However, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, only the President of this organization can interpret Phil's message:

"Phil is the one deciding whether or not he's seen the shadow. It's not up to us. All we do is deliver his message."
~A.J. Dereume, President, Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

While Phil's predictions may not be supported by science, the tradition itself brings joy to many people!

Animal Behavior as a Predictor of Weather

Punxsutawney Phil groundhog day science naturally weather predictions STEM animals animal behavior

Animal behaviors have been observed for a very long time. We watch animals for signs of a change of seasons such as geese flying south for the winter, the first robins appearing in spring, or animals like badgers, hedgehogs, and bears emerging from their hibernation dens.

Animals and birds react to weather in many different ways and their reactions can predict significant changes in the weather. Science is yet to determine exactly how animals know what’s to come.  Is it a rise or fall in atmospheric pressure, a reaction to electromagnetic forces, or even changes in the levels of humidity?  Or perhaps some undetermined combination of all three of these?

A longtime study done by Ken Armitage, a professor at the University of Kansas, states that rodents are now emerging about a month earlier in the spring than they did 30 or 40 years ago. Ken says, “understanding how individual groundhogs respond to environmental change is essential if we want to predict how animals will react to global warming and other human-driven habitat shifts.”

According to oral tradition, potential signs of bad weather include:

  • Expect rain when dogs eat grass, cats purr and wash, sheep turn into the wind, oxen sniff the air, and swine are restless.

  • Horses or cows lying down is a sign of rain.

  • Bats flying late in the evening indicates fair weather.

  • When pigs gather extra leaves and straw, expect a cold winter.

  • If sheep climb up hills and scatter, expect clear weather.

Do you notice any strange behavior in your animals or pets when the weather is changing? What are they? Let us know in the comments!

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