Can Wooly Bear Caterpillars Predict Winter Weather?

Wooly Bear on grass stem

The woolly bear caterpillar is the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia Isabella. The Isabella tiger moth overwinters in the larval stage. In the fall, caterpillars seek shelter under leaf litter or other protected places.  They eat mostly weeds, including dandelion, clover, and grasses. Woolly bears are relative speedsters in the caterpillar world, crawling at a neck-snapping .05 miles an hour, or about a mile a day.

The woolly bear caterpillar—with its distinct segments of black and reddish-brown—has the reputation of being able to forecast the coming winter weather.  According to legend, the wider that middle brown section is,  the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a colder, snowier winter. Among a group of woolly bears, the stripes can vary greatly, making their forecast difficult to confirm;  the same group of eggs can even hatch into caterpillars of varying dark and light bands.

Dr. C.H. Curran, former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, tested the woolly worms’ accuracy in the 1950’s. Although his initial  surveys found an 80% accuracy rate for the woolly worms’ weather predictions, Dr. Curran gave up the study in 1955 after finding two groups of caterpillars living near each other that had vastly different predictions for the upcoming winter. Other researchers have not been able to replicate the success rate of Curran’s caterpillars.

Most scientists discount the folklore of woolly bear predictions.  Many variables may contribute to changes in the caterpillar’s coloration, including larval stage, food availability, temperature or moisture during development, and age.

Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, says there could be a link between winter severity and the brown band of a woolly bear caterpillar. “There’s evidence,” he says, “that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar—in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The [band] does say something about a heavy winter or an early spring.  The only thing is . . . it’s telling you about the previous year.”

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Ötzi the Iceman and the Ten Essentials

On September 19, 1991, in the mountains between Austria and Italy, hikers stumbled upon the corpse of a 5,300 year-old man eroding out of a glacier. Dubbed “Ötzi” this perfectly preserved iceman is the oldest human ever found.  The Iceman stood about 5’5″ tall, and weighed about 134 lbs. He was in his mid-40s, and his strong leg muscles and overall fitness suggest that he may have spent his life herding sheep and goats in the mountains. His health was fair for the period–he had arthritis in his joints and he had whipworm – an internal parasite.

Ötzi carried tools, weapons, and containers including an animal skin quiver with arrow-shafts made of viburnum and hazel wood, sinews and spare points. A copper ax head with a yew haft and leather binding, a small flint knife and a pouch with a flint scraper and awl were all included in the artifacts found with him. He carried a yew bow. Otzi’s clothing included a belt, loincloth, and goat-skin leggings with suspenders, not unlike lederhosen. He wore a bear-skin cap, outer cape and coat made of woven grass.  His shoes were waterproof and wide, seemingly designed for walking across the snow; they were constructed using bearskin for the soles, deer hide for the top panels, and a netting made of tree bark.  Soft grass went around the foot and in the shoe and functioned like modern socks.

Otzi -dagger-and-sheath

We wanted to compare what he was carrying with our list of Ten Essentials.

Flashlight Or Headlamp
Extra Food Ötzi carried some extra berries.
Extra Clothes Ötzi wore a cloak made of woven grass and a coat, a belt, a pair of leggings, a loincloth and shoes, all made of leather of different skins
Sunglasses & Sun Screen
First Aid Kit Ötzi carried two species of mushrooms with leather strings through them. One of these, the birch fungus, is known to have antibacterial properties and was likely used for medicinal purposes.
Pocket Knife Or Multi Purpose Tool Ötzi carried a little flint-tipped dagger with a handle made of ash. The dagger had twin cutting edges. Ötzi would have carried it attached to his waist. It was found inside a finely braided scabbard. The dagger would have been used as a multipurpose tool, but often to skin animals, clean hides and cut meat.
Fire Starter And Matches Ötzi had a type of tinder fungus included as part of a complex fire starting kit. The kit featured pieces of over a dozen different plants in addition to flint and pyrite for creating sparks.
Water And A Way To Purify It Two birch bark baskets that could have carried water

Not bad for a 5,300 year old primitive camper.

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Winter Camping; The Morning After…

Everyone worries about sleeping warm during their winter camp out.  What about after your night’s snooze?  Consider these suggestions.

When you awake prolong your time in the sleeping bag as long as possible. Try to prepare a hot drink, eat your breakfast, get dressed and pack up to the extent possible while staying warm in your sleeping bag.

Roll the moisture out of your bag each morning when you get up as your fluffy sleeping bag is full of warm very moist air exuded from your body all night long. Without rolling out your sleeping bag that moisture will begin to condense on the insulation inside the bag and reduce its effectiveness for the next night.  Immediately squish all that warm moist air out of the bag as soon as you exit; compress it, let it expand, and compress it again. If weather permits set it out to dry.

Pack your inflatable sleeping pad by folding the mattress several times and sitting on it to get most of the air out, then start at the end and roll toward the valve, using your knee as pressure to keep it rolling tightly. Or alternatively fold mattress in half lengthwise, then fold again. Now sit on mattress and open the valve. When all the air is out, close the valve and roll up your mattress.

Packing nylon tents and stuff sacks can really cause your hands to get cold. Wear your gloves and mittens as much as possible to prevent frostbit.

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It’s The Journey, Not The Destination…

Enjoy your time in the back country.

  • Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘It is better to travel hopefully than arrive’.
  • Stevenson was expressing the same idea as a Taoist saying – “The journey is the reward” indicating how hope can be pleasant in itself.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quip from Travels With a Donkey — “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go” embodies this spirit.
  • I’ve learned that everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it. – Anonymous

The credo; ‘It’s the journey, not the destination‘; was expressed to our winter camping group during a trip to Peaked Mountain in New York State’s Adirondack Park. The Peaked Mountain trail is an easy 2.5 miles and leads through a pretty mixed hardware and coniferous forest. The summit of Peaked Mountain is at 2,919 feet and the last third of a mile is rough climbing to ascend the last 600 feet. This last part of the ascent can be slippery depending upon snow and ice conditions.  The spectacular views from the summit include Peaked Mountain Pond and Big and Little Thirteenth Lakes.  There are also views of the Adirondack High Peaks to the north.  During one of our trips to Peaked Mountain we got a late start and did not reach the ascent, but enjoyed an excellent overnight camping trip none the less.  It was at this point that we started to focus on the winter camping experience and less on recording the accomplishment.

Some of the most enjoyable trips involved falling short of the intended destination.

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