As I recall, on Groundhog Day, the verdict was an early spring. But none of the predicators giving their decree that day, Punxsutawney Phil included, said how easy the rest of winter would be. How much stock you put in the pronouncement made on Feb. 2 is a personal choice, of course.
Can an animal really predict the weather? Many people, when they see a horse, bison, deer, etc., putting on a heavier coat for winter, believe that’s a sign of a hard winter. The woolly bear caterpillar is also believed by many to be able to forecast the severity of winter. This caterpillar is black and reddish brown; the more reddish brown showing in autumn, the milder the winter will be. Vice versa, the more black, the harsher the season.
Other weather predictors: If the snowshoe hare has extra-furry feet, the snowfalls for the winter will be heavy; if a black bear sleeps close to the opening of his winter den, the weather won’t be too bad.
All of these beliefs are based on many years of observation. At the heart of all of this is the fact that animals in the wild have a closer relationship with nature and 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. They need to be more sensitive to all of nature’s signals to survive.
In 2004, when a tsunami hit Sri Lanka and India, there were documented cases of wild animals leaving their regular habitats, some heading to higher ground, prior to the tsunami making landfall. Thousands of people died, yet very few wild animals perished. The thought is that animals are more sensitive to the subtle changes that occur when the weather changes or before an earthquake.
Many animals have a wider range of hearing than humans do. Some hear higher sounds (ultrasonic) like a dog whistle, while others hear a lower range (infrasonic). Earthquakes, hurricanes, thunder and even ocean waves produce sounds lower than humans can hear, sounds in the infrasonic range. Cattle and elephants are just two of the animals who can hear in this range.
Storms can also cause big changes in the barometric pressure. Birds and bees are sensitive to these changes and have been noted as heading for home when they are detected.
Humans have been watching and learning from animals for years. Now, there are even seizure dogs that are sensitive enough to warn of some types of seizures in their human companions based on subtle changes in behavior or smell that the dog can detect. There are also dogs that signal their diabetic owner when they detect low blood sugar.
Animal senses are amazing! Whether they know how soon spring will arrive or not, they definitely know a lot that we don’t. Come to the zoo and see what the animals tell you.
Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.