Tuesday was Groundhog Day. Based on what the groundhog saw, many believe we are in for six more weeks of winter. How much credence you give the prediction is, of course, up to you. So how did all this get started? Could an animal actually predict the weather? As far as the current holiday itself is concerned, its roots are found in celebrations from the past (Celtic Imbolc, Catholic Saint Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day) and involved a hedgehog as the weather predictor. When Europeans came to North America they brought many old traditions with them and found the native groundhog to be a suitable substitute for the European hedgehog and so began the transition to what we have now — Groundhog Day.
Many people, when they see a horse, bison, elk, etc., putting on a heavier winter coat, believe it is a sign of a hard winter. Other belief systems, based on many years of observation, say if the snowshoe hare has extra-furry feet, the snowfalls for the winter will be heavy, while on the other hand, if a black bear sleeps close to the opening of his winter den, the weather won't be too bad. At the very base of whether or not animals can make weather predictions is the fact that animals in the wild have to deal with whatever the weather throws at them in a more basic way than we do with our houses, heaters, canned foods, refrigerators, etc. Animals have a more intimate relationship with nature and need to be more attuned to its signals. Whether it is sight, sound, touch, taste or smell, it can generally be said that animals are able to detect much more than humans with at least one of the five senses. Animals rely on those senses to survive, to find food, to get away from danger, etc.
What about major events like earthquakes or storms? When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and India in 2004, thousands of people died yet very few wild animals perished. There were numerous reports of elephants heading for high ground, captive animals going into shelters and not coming out, and other animals (bats, flamingos, etc.) leaving their regular habitats before the storm hit. The suspicion is that the animals are more sensitive to the subtle changes, vibrations and sounds that come before such events.
The hearing range for people is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Other animals (elephants, cattle, etc.), can hear below that range (infrasonic) while others (dogs, bats, dolphins, etc.), can hear above the human range (e.g. the high-pitched sound of a dog whistle), otherwise known as ultrasonic. Earthquakes, hurricanes, thunder and ocean waves produce sounds in the infrasonic range. Big changes in air (barometric) and water (hydrostatic) pressure accompany various storms (e.g. hurricanes). Sharks have been known to head for deeper water after encountering an unusual change in hydrostatic pressure. Changes in barometric pressure have been documented as causing birds and bees to head for home.
In those circumstances it benefits the animal to sense the odd vibrations or unusual changes in the normal pattern of things and move away from the strange sensation or seek shelter. Human observations and interpretations of animal behaviors have been going on for years and produced various results — Groundhog Day for one. Where else can such observations take us?
There's anecdotal evidence that some dogs are sensitive enough to warn of some types of seizures in their human companions. The cues are thought to be subtle changes in behavior or even smell that the dog picks up on. For this to work, the dog must be very familiar with the person involved, they need to know the person under normal circumstances in order to detect the unusual cues. There are "seizure-alert" dogs and "seizure-response" (or "assist") dogs. The alert dogs warn their human before the seizure occurs, while the response dogs help them during and after the seizure (stay with them, get help, fetch medication, etc.). Some of these behaviors can be trained, while some seem to be innate. Animal senses are amazing and whether they can predict how long the winter will last or not, it seems they may know some things we don't.
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