Feb 012010
Authors: Sara Michael

It’s Groundhog Day, and the big tossup is back: Will the hog see his shadow?

Professor of biology Greg Florant scoffs at the question. His research takes him into the depths of what he calls “animal energetics” –– physiological processes of small mammals, particularly the yellow-bellied marmot and the golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Florant is no stranger to the hibernation cycle of these animals, and he laughs about the groundhog myth.
“These animals don’t come out of hibernation until late March or early April,” Florant says. And, he adds, they don’t come out to observe their shadow –– they come out to check out the ladies, with “reproduction on the brain.”

But Florant has more information still that debunks the groundhog tale.

“It’s a common misconception that they just disappear, go to sleep and don’t come back until spring,” he says.

Hibernating animals actually go through a “torpor bout,” during which their body temperature lowers to about zero degrees Celsius, he says. Every week or so, they re-warm themselves to normal temperatures –– about 36 degrees Celsius or 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit –– for a few hours.

They don’t eat, they don’t come out –– they just warm up, and then go back into torpor.

That’s a phenomenon that scientists call the “mystery of the arousal,” Florant says. “Nobody knows why they do that.”

When asked about the over-abundant supply of squirrels that CSU harbors that have clearly been up and active around campus, Florant laughs. “Those are tree squirrels,” he explains. “They don’t hibernate.”

As his last case, Florant pulls out the calendar. “If you just count,” he says, counting from Monday through the first day of spring, March 21, “it doesn’t matter if he sees his shadow or not. There are six more weeks of winter, anyway.”

But in his personal opinion?

“We’re going to have a hard winter,” he says. “None of my marmots will get up anytime soon.”

Experts and novices alike share that sentiment.

“Punxsutawney Phil almost always sees his shadow,” said state Climatologist Nolan Doesken. “It’s sort of rigged, you know … Phil is in Pennsylvania, and in Pennsylvania, it’s cloudy a lot of the time.”

Doesken gave a fairly good prediction for the upcoming weather, though he was aware of the skepticism surrounding Colorado weathermen’s accuracy.

“We often make it until March before we start having the whopping rapid extreme changes in weather and then our big spring snow storms,” he said. February, though, is a usually dry month –– or in his words, “kinda ho-hum.”

“Having said that, it’ll probably snow on Feb. 21 or something,” he said, laughing. “You can’t predict Mother Nature.”

The real concern, Doesken said, is for the mountains. There hasn’t been as much snow as ski-fanatics and regular Joes alike have come to expect, and, he said, that means there’s a whole lot of winter ahead, even past March or February.

“Groundhog or not, it will snow. It always snows,” said sophomore economics major Dana Brighton. “Winter’s not over. It’s Colorado.”

Staff writer Sara Michael can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm

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