Monday, July 24, 2006

Evolution of the Wooly Worm

Here's a question for ya'.

I don't have any pictures, so I'm just gonna' do my best to describe this.

Out in Kentucky, there are these super fuzzy caterpillars. They're black and orange, and about 2 or 3 inches long. Sometimes they're all black, all orange, or black on both ends and orange in the middle or vice versa.

My grandfather (Papaw) is an old "mountain man" kinda guy. Very woodsy. He was a coal miner back in the day, and grew up poor as dirt. He dropped out of school and went to work sometime around the fourth grade. He still doesn't read very well. He used to keep a still on the back forty of the farm, but until she died, my grandmother (Granny Bea being a good Christian woman and all) would always sneak out and find it, and trash it, whenever he'd be away visiting for a few days. He'd come back and rebuild it every time, but in a new place. In an odd way, it was sort of a lovers' game. He hasn't built one since she died a few years ago. It's so sweet in the most unusual way. It's sort of a shame, 'cause he made the best 'shine in the whole (dry) county. Don't ask me how I know. Nonya bizwax.

Anyways, back to the wooly worms. Every fall, he goes out on the farm, picks a few of them up, brings them back to the house, and predicts the weather of the coming winter by their color.

It goes like this. The winter is three months long, and the wooly worm has three "portions", the middle and the two ends. Now, where there's black, that's where the winter will be bad, and where there's orange, that's where the winter will be mild.

Old wives' tale, right? You would think.

I admit that I haven't ever kept a written journal or anything, to record his accuracy, and I further admit my bias. However, the entire family swears he's never been wrong. He can't read an almanac, so even if they got one every year, that wouldn't help him. He rarely leaves the farm, and even then only goes "a visitin' his kin", so we're talking backwoods folks here, not meteorologists or scientists or nothin'.

My question is, is there some way the wooly worm may have evolved some trait that causes it's coloration to react to atmospheric changes or something that would cause this phenomenon? Is it possible that maybe a particularly high humidity or something during the summer both portends a less mild winter and also affects the coloration of the wooly worm's wool?

Or are we poor country bumpkins just all being snookered?

Of course there is the possibility that our memories in March of what Papaw said in September and October are biased, but that IS a lot of folks to be remembering wrong, all exactly the same way. Possible.

(Anyone calls Papaw a liar gets a kick in the shin. I'm warning you ahead of time, just so y'know.)

6 Eloquent Orations:

On 7/25/2006 03:08:00 PM, Blogger JanieBelle waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

What? Not one of you evolution gurus can think of ANYTHING that might explain this naturally?

Is it really that likely that the wool is being pulled over everyone's eyes, so to speak?

Can no one even hazard a guess at some explanation?


On 7/26/2006 05:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

I've been busy, as usual, and its been hot here- in the 70's.

Not knowing anything about insects, I would hazard a guess that it is possible that the worm can indicate the coming winter, but exactly how is the problem. for instance, if in most cases, a good summer was followed by a bad winter, and the caterpillars coloration depended upon how well fed they were, then if bad winters followed good summers, and they turned more black the better fed they were, then finding lots of black ones might suggest a bad winter ahead.

But this is only a hypothesis. Its your job to o a preliminary test on it by photographing a bunch of these beasties this autumn, and seeing what the prediction is and what the winter actually is. IF the predictions come true for several years in a row, then we might have something going on.

Alternatively, get yourself to college and see if you can sic some biologists onto it.

Thank you, guthrie, we miss you!


On 7/26/2006 08:48:00 AM, Blogger JanieBelle waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

Thank you, guthrie.

Hope you're enjoying your heat wave. We've been in a cool wave the last few days. It's been in the high 80's. The afternoon thunderstorms have been keeping the temperature down, I think.

I hadn't thought of the food angle. I was kind of stuck in "atmospheric conditions" mode. Thank you for opening my mind.

My Dad always says "Sometimes you have to change the premise". What he means is that when you have a problem, and all your solutions seem to come up short, sometimes you have to go back and re-examine the problem itself. Maybe what you think is the problem, isn't really the problem at all. Maybe there isn't a problem, maybe it's something different. Perhaps what you need to do is figure out what the real problem is, if any, and alter your strategy completely.

An example:

Sometime around homecoming of my Junior year in high school, I was pouting, having just broken up with boyfriend #3 for that year. I whined aloud "How come I can't find a boyfriend I can be happy with for more than two weeks?"

Dad, of course, spits out "Sometimes you have to change the premise." I think now that he was thinking I might need to reconsider whether I needed a steady boyfriend at all.

I guess we all know how I was thinking about changing the premise. He was aiming at the word "boyfriend", I was aiming at the word "boy".

Anyways, this might be one of those occasions. I was stuck thinking the problem was - "how might atmospheric conditions cause the color changes". I think I need to broaden the scope of the problem. I'm taking aim at the word "atmospheric". Let's change it to "environmental".

Thanks, guthrie.

Kisses to you,


On 7/26/2006 10:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

Looks like you've been doing a fair bit of re-scope a problem recently.
Environments are so important as well. Yet people seem to ignore them so much.
"Why cant I build a glass house in the mExican desert?"

(I did actually hear about this from the uncle of a Californian friend of mine. Needless to say, it all ended in tears)


On 7/26/2006 05:29:00 PM, Blogger JanieBelle waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

guthrie said

"Looks like you've been doing a fair bit of re-scope a problem recently."

All sorts of them, actually. I'm multi-tasking to the best of my ability. I'm not really keeping my head above water, but I'm having fun drowning.




On 7/26/2006 05:30:00 PM, Blogger JanieBelle waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

"Why cant I build a glass house in the Mexican desert?"

You could, actually. I think they call that a greenhouse, though.



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