Groundhog Day 2018: Other Animals That Actually Predict the Weather Better
Shove it, Phil.
There will either be six more weeks of winter or an early spring, depending on which groundhog you trust. The most famous groundhog, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, and his comrade Potomac Phil of Washington, D.C. both saw their shadows Friday morning — which, by the law of Groundhog Day means it’s going to be a long winter, baby. Meanwhile, Staten Island’s Chuck and Long Island’s Holtsville Hal didn’t see their shadows, indicating that spring-like weather is just around this miserable corner.
This “will it be winter or spring” business is largely contingent on your willingness to get the weather report from some guys in top hats judging a large rodent. That’s not scientifically advisable: Punxsutawney Phil usually doesn’t get it right, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that groundhogs show “no predictive skill” for weather prediction. Actual human meteorologists, meanwhile, get it right about 80 percent of the time.
Nevertheless, humans still booed Phil this morning when winter was announced because we are monsters.
But just because we can’t rely on groundhogs to give us precise weather forecasts doesn’t mean animals have zero predictive abilities. Groundhogs may unfairly get all the attention, but here are some critters who actually have a sense of what weather is to come.
It’s no secret bird flight is affected by the weather: Fierce storms can blow birds off course, and low air pressure makes it difficult for birds to fly. To survive, birds are thought to have evolved to have some predictive power when it comes to bad weather. A 2013 study from Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research discovered that birds can predict weather changes by tracking the rise and fall of barometric pressure. Birds, the researchers explain, have their own internal barometers, and they typically choose not to fly when placed into conditions with high air pressure, understanding there’s a high chance they’ll encounter a storm.
In 2014, scientists discovered birds can detect severe weather in another way: They can detect the infrasound — sound waves lower than what humans can hear — of storms. In a paper published in Cell, scientists explain that golden-winged warblers, migratory birds native to North America, can pick up the low-frequency sounds, allowing them to detect storms up to 600 miles away. This ability is believed to be shared by many birds: In a 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology scientists discovered that pigeons can detect infrasounds too.
At least some insects can predict the weather, especially when they’re trying to mate. In a paper published in PLOS One in 2013, an international team of scientists reported that curcurbit beetles, armyworm moths, and potato aphids all decided to forgo sex when the scientists lowered the atmospheric pressure in their enclosure. Female bugs stopped wafting their sex hormones toward the males, and male bugs just stopped paying attention to the females.
This disinterest in sex, the scientists believe, occurs because insects know that a drop atmospheric pressure means a rainstorm is probably coming. Rain really ruins the mood when you’re a little bug; you don’t want to be washed away while you’re out trying to do the deed. Scientists aren’t sure how the insects detect atmospheric changes but think it may come down to the hair-like receptors on their cuticle.
Sharks are also sensitive to barometric pressure, which drops when a storm blows in. When they feel this drop in the ocean, they swim into deeper waters, where it’s safer. This is good news for other fish, who often note sharks’ dive to the depths as an indication that they need to swim to a safer spot as well.
When tropical storms begin to form, scientists have observed sharks migrating toward the layer of water known as the isotherm. This layer of water is 26 degrees Celsius, which is also the minimum temperature required for a storm to form. Again, scientists aren’t sure how exactly sharks know to move to this layer, but they’re currently studying shark behavior so we can steal their technology to predict hurricanes.