Wooly Worms and Winter Weather

Ahhh…the wooly worm. It’s amazing how a creature that is neither “worm” nor “wooly” can have so much to say about our weather! You’ve probably heard the weather lore suggesting that you can tell how severe (harsh) the winter will be by the width of the brown band on the wooly worm. ┬áBoth the severity of winter and the width of the band are subjective – open to the interpretation of the person measuring the width or describing the winter.

Before we explore Tennessee Valley wooly worms, it’s important to ask how they got their groundhog-esque forecasting abilities?

From Almanac.com:

“In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took his wife 40 miles north of the city to Bear Mountain State Park to look at woolly bear caterpillars.
Dr. Curran collected as many caterpillars as he could in a day, determined the average number of reddish-brown segments, and forecast the coming winter weather through a reporter friend at The New York Herald Tribune.

Dr. Curran’s experiment, which he continued over the next eight years, attempted to prove scientifically a weather rule of thumb that was as old as the hills around Bear Mountain. The resulting publicity made the woolly bear the most recognizable caterpillar in North America.

Between 1948 and 1956, Dr. Curran’s average brown-segment counts ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total, meaning that the brown band took up more than a third of the woolly bear’s body. As those relatively high numbers suggested, the corresponding winters were milder than average.

But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew that his data samples were small. Although the experiments popularized and, to some people, legitimized folklore, they were simply an excuse for having fun. Curran, his wife, and their group of friends escaped the city to see the foliage each fall, calling themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.

Thirty years after the last meeting of Curran’s society, the woolly bear brown-segment counts and winter forecasts were resurrected by the nature museum at Bear Mountain State Park. The annual counts have continued, more or less tongue in cheek, since then.”

So, it’s been tested but not proven.

Last week, I asked for photo submissions of the wooly worms that you are coming across, and we got a lot of them. Today (Tuesday) was the first mention of a totally black one. It seems that people are seeing a lot of them! Especially around The Shoals, Sand and Lookout Mountains.

So this means a really, really, REALLY bad winter, right? As Lee Corso would say to Herbie on College Game Day, “not so fast, my friend!”

Thanks to Facebook friend Donna Garner Arcara, I learned something new today:

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 5.38.06 PM

It turns out that not all hairy caterpillars are “wooly worms.”

The all-black caterpillar is the “giant leopard moth, Hypercompe scribonia.”

The “wooly worm” is actually the “banded woolly bear or Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella.”

These are the “worms” you’re looking for:

I’m a believer that animals big and small can give us hints at what is coming down the road, but I’m not ready to stake my career on a winter weather forecast based on the bands of the wooly worm. It’s fun to watch and see how it plays out, and that’s really all we can do at this point!

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