Blue Ridge Country September/October 2020 - 12

C R E AT U R E F E AT U R E

Inching Along

Can woolly worms actually predict winter weather?
By NANCY HENDERSON

TODD BUSH

T

ethered loosely on 3-foot-long strings, a row again with the larvae, cocoon and adult and they lay eggs
of brown-and-black caterpillars lines up on the again."
Their legendary status as foretellers of the future bestage to compete in individual heats for a chance
to predict whether the upcoming winter will be gan in 1948 when Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at
mild or harsh, or a little of both. Inch by inch, the American Museum of Natural History in New York
the fuzzy competitors steadily race to the finish City, studied the woolly worms in a small area for a short
line at the annual Woolly Worm Festival in Ban- period of time, determined that winter would be mild if
ner Elk, North Carolina, a tradition since 1978, when the caterpillars sported more brown segments than black,
a local resident created a way to decide which woolly and published his findings in the New York Herald.
What the hues really show, acworm would become the next
cording to Skeate, is how old the
Punxsutawney Phil-type prognosAPPRECIATING A
worms are. "When they're really
ticator in this quaint mountain
FESTIVAL, WHETHER
little, they're almost completely
town. Each year, the champion
black and as they grow, the rusty
wins the coveted title of official
IT HAPPENS
or red hairs replace the black hairs,"
forecaster.
THIS YEAR OR NOT
he says. "It's kind of like as we get
According to woolly worm
As we go to press, the announceolder, we get more and more gray
fans throughout the Blue Ridge
ment comes that the 43rd Woolly
hair that replaces the black ones. As
states, the caterpillar's 13 bands
Worm Festival will not take place this
autumn.
to why [the woolly worm] does that,
of fur represent the 13 weeks of
we're not really sure. That's kind of
winter. A brown band allegedly
Over its first 42 years the festival,
a mystery, but maybe it discourages
indicates a mild week, while a
featuring racers like Patsy Climb and
predators."
black one signals cold, ice and
Dale Wormhart, has raised some $1.4
million for children in Avery County.
The long, stiff hairs probably
snow. In some parts of the counhelp
keep them warm, Skeate adds.
try, the width of the band, not the
See page 45 for a great fall drive
"One
of the reasons they're so widecolors, signifies the severity of the
around Brevard, North Carolina,
spread
and do so well up here in the
upcoming season.
home of the venerable festival.
mountains is that they can withThis time of year, the curiousstand freezing temperatures. ... Its
looking critters-they are actually
the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth-are frequently seen scientific name ends in 'arctica,' which indicates that it's
crossing the road or feeding on grasses and goldenrod capable of surviving in really, really cold, cold weather."
as they wander around looking for places to hibernate It accomplishes this by freezing solid when the temperabeneath logs, rocks or debris. What many people don't ture drops; the cryoprotectant (a.k.a. "antifreeze") in their
realize is that the autumn woolly worms actually belong tissues protects their bodies until the spring thaw.
"There is a little bit of science possible in this [folkto the second round of a group that initially emerges
from cocoons in the spring. After the moths come out of lore]," Skeate says with a laugh. "If it's a cold and wet
the pupae stage, says Stewart Skeate, a biology professor summer, the caterpillars don't grow as much and as a reand wildlife biology program coordinator at Lees-McRae sult, they have less red and more black. So maybe by havCollege in Banner Elk, "they actually go through an en- ing a colder summer, you're going to have a colder wintire generation in the summer, but we don't really no- ter. But there's really not a whole lot of science involved.
tice them. And then they go through this whole thing It's more of a fun type of thing."

12

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