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Animal Forecasters Overshadowed by the Groundhog

1/26/2010 12:48:42 PM

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE            Contact: Thom Benson 423-785-3007
       February Spotlight on Folklore Forecasts at the Tennessee Aquarium
      Weather Predicting Groundhogs Like Chattanooga Chuck Have Competition

Chattanooga, Tenn. (January 26, 2010) - The winter of 2009-2010 has been etched into the record books. Extreme weather events like the December blizzard, January cold snap and headline-making rainfall on the west coast have many people wondering what the rest of winter will bring. So perhaps there's added interest to see what the Tennessee Aquarium's groundhog, Chattanooga Chuck, will predict on February 2nd. No shadow portending an early spring? Or will a dark, woodchuck silhouette foreshadow six more weeks of winter?
Whether they join in the fun or not, most Americans are familiar with the groundhog's story. But woodchucks aren't the only animals with forecasting proverbs touting their prediction prowess. Throughout the month of February, the Tennessee Aquarium will spotlight "The Wild Side of Weather." Aquarium visitors will have fun learning some folklore facts and folklore fun by meeting many of these fabled forecasters face-to-face during animal encounter programs and special keeper talks.
Tales about groundhogs, birds, fish and other "beasts" were among hundreds of weather proverbs published in the 1883 book, Signal Service Notes IX - Weather Proverbs. Brigadier General William B. Hazen, then Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army, put out a national call for weather folklore writing, "The study of popular weather prognostics has been considered of such interest that much attention has been given this subject by European meteorologists."
Responses came back from all over the United States, many from Tennessee, and included species ranging from bears - "If the tracks of bear are seen after the first fall of snow, an open, mild winter may be expected." - to glow-worms - "Before rain: Glow-worms numerous, clear and bright, illuminate the dewy hills at night."
With more than 10,000 animals living in two buildings, the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga is home to many of the animal forecasters mentioned in the 1883 War Department report. So Aquarium experts have taken a look at the proverbs that apply to Aquarium "beasts" to see which ones hold water 127 years later.
According to senior aquarist Rob Mottice, several of the old sayings relating to fish are behavioral responses to weather changes. "Barometric pressure changes create havoc for fishermen," said Mottice. So the adage;
       "Fishermen in anger froth
       When the wind is in the north;
       For fish bite the best
       When the wind is in the west"

makes sense as does, "When fish bite readily and swim near the surface, rain may be expected." Mottice says fish tend to feed on insects and other critters when the barometer is falling. "They feel better because there is less pressure on them. Atmospheric pressure is felt in the water, not just above it," Mottice said.
Other sayings related to fish forecasters have scientific explanations according to Mottice. One saying attributed to Chippewa Indians could be one of the better long-range predictions: "In the northern lakes of the United States white-fish and lake trout leave reefs for deep water one month earlier in stormy falls than in mild, calm falls, with little winds." Mottice said the conditions mentioned could easily trigger the observed behavior. "Temperature changes and turbidity, or visibility changes, upset the daily routines of the fish. They might find it harder to locate prey or change locations to avoid being preyed upon in murky waters."
Other species seen at the Tennessee Aquarium like cuttlefish, crabs, catfish and sharks were also mentioned as watery weather wizards. However, Mottice said some sayings like, "Skate jump in the direction that the next wind will come from" were rather fishy. "Skates and stingrays don't jump. They are bottom dwellers," he said.
Senior educator Susie Grant says visitors really enjoy the Aquarium's new animal encounters. But guests shouldn't plan their day according to the proverbs related to many of these species. "It's unlikely that a barking gecko's call means a storm," said Grant. "And flying squirrels vocalize to establish territories and find a mate. They don't vocalize to broadcast a weather report." So place, "When lizards chirrup, it is a sure indication of rain" and "When flying-squirrels sing in mid-winter, it indicates an early spring" into the "not likely" category.
Grant also disputes the saying about another Aquarium crowd favorite - screech owls. "A screeching owl indicates cold or storm."
According to Kevin Calhoon, the Aquarium's assistant curator of forests, many of the avian proverbs are 'for the birds.' If for example, you're aboard the River Gorge Explorer and see "Blackbirds flocking in the fall, it indicates a spell of cold weather" don't break out the heavy jackets. "Blackbirds always flock together in the fall, so that one has a 50/50 chance of being accurate," said Calhoon. However, you might pay attention to the hyacinth macaws while you're in Ocean Journey. According to folklore, "Parrots and canaries dress their feathers and are wakeful the evening before a storm." Calhoon said that one may have some merit. "All birds, whether macaws or penguins preen to care for their feathers. But parrots might remain a bit uneasy before a storm in response to wind or pressure changes."
While observing various frogs in Discovery Hall, Aquarium visitors also might want to listen for a forecast. Dave Collins, the Aquarium's curator of forests, says there's a grain of truth to a couple of proverbs related to these amphibians. "Frogs are stimulated to call and become more active during periods of high humidity and rain," said Collins. "While individual frogs don't call more loudly, more rain can stimulate more frogs to call, making for a louder overall chorus." So place two more proverbs into the "weather fact" category: "Frogs croak more noisily, and come abroad in the evening in large numbers, before rain," and "The louder the frogs, the more's the rain."
We'll have to wait and see whether Chattanooga Chuck's first Groundhog Day forecast will turn out to be correct or not. In the meantime, Tennessee Aquarium visitors will have the entire month of February to meet fascinating folklore forecasters from, "The Wild Side of Weather."

The Tennessee Aquarium's woodchuck appears to be studying a weather map.

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