Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Animal Lore: Wooly Bear Caterpillars

The cold is really starting to set in here, which of course comes as no surprise given the date on the calendar. The late nights and early mornings are crisp and frosty. Yesterday it was snowing a bit, and today you can feel how the ground is frozen beneath your feet. It can be seen in the animals as well, as squirrels rush to stockpile as much as they can, and the once bright yellow goldfinches are now a dusty yellow-brown.

Still, there's one little animal you might miss if you're not paying attention - the Wooly Bear caterpillar, which is a pretty amazing creature.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar, with it's black end segments and brown band.
Wooly Bears are a fairly solitary in nature, and finding one walking about is quite common in the fall, and around now most of them are seeking out a good place to hunker down for the winter. Usually they'll find a nice spot under a large rock, in wood piles, under leaves or roots - that sort of place. Here's the thing, though... they're not seeking out a place to build a cocoon, and they don't hibernate. A Wooly Bear caterpillar will literally freeze solid for the winter, and thaw out in the spring. Because of this, the Wooly Bear has strong ties to the cycle of death and rebirth. Once thawed, they spend a bit of time eating greens, then build a cocoon. A Wooly Bear caterpillar will transform into an Isabella Tiger moth, and once a moth will only live for a few days - long enough for them to hopefully find a mate. So, like many other caterpillars, they have strong transformation symbolism.

Wooly Bears have a reputation for being able to forecast the severity of the coming winter. They're fuzzy black caterpillars with a brown band around their middle. If this band is small, it's said the coming winter will be harsh. If the brown band is long, it will be a mild winter. Another bit of folklore seems to contradict this a bit - each of the 13 segments of the caterpillar represents one of the 13 weeks of winter, with the brown segments showing colder weeks.

A Wooly Bear missing it's black end band?
While a fun bit of folklore, it's questionable how accurate this method of prediction is.  Some scientists who study the Wooly Bear believe the brown band to be more an indicator of age, so in a way it actually shows how harsh the winter of the previous year was - the later start they got in the spring, the worse the winter was. Another method of prediction just says that the fatter and fuzzier the Wooly Bears are, the worse the winter will be.

Wooly Bears are safe to handle. Some say their bristles may be irritating to sensitive skin, but as someone who has sensitive skin it's never been a problem for me. If you pick one up and it does bother your skin, washing your hands with soap and water will likely fix any issues. The bristles act as a deterrent to many predators, who find them unpleasant to eat. If you do pick up a Wooly Bear, or otherwise disturb it, chances are it will curl up into a tight little ball and attempt to play dead.

In the warmer months a Wooly Bear will eat a variety of greens, including clover, maple, oak, and birch leaves, dandelions, and other sorts of grasses and weeds.




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