Why Do We Use a Groundhog to Forecast the Weather?

Jeff Swensen, Getty Images
Jeff Swensen, Getty Images

It's only been in the past 60 or so years that humans have been able to rely on television meteorologists for weather predictions. Before Al Roker, the Babylonians looked at cloud formations; in 300 BCE, the Chinese had a calendar broken into 24 festivals, each with its own unique weather patterns.

Today we use satellites and other costly equipment to gauge our environment, examining changes in the atmosphere and running sophisticated computer models. And sometimes, we just stare at a groundhog.

Every February 2, a doughy rodent named Punxsutawney Phil briefly emerges from his winter hibernation to have a look around. If he sees his shadow, that means there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, we can assume that warm weather is looming.

The ritual has been carried out in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every year since 1887. Relying on Phil is actually not much better than flipping a coin—he's right an estimated 64.4 percent of the time—but clearly someone at one time believed a groundhog had predictive abilities. Who? And why?

To understand Phil's current status, it helps to know that superstition and weather have had a long association. Observers of the Christian holiday Candlemas, for example, received candles blessed by clergymen. If the skies were cloudy that day, warm weather was imminent; if the sun was out, winter would persist.

In Europe, the idea that winter's duration could be foretold was carried over to animal behavior. Hibernating animals like bears, marmots, and hedgehogs were observed to see when they'd emerge from their dens. 

In Germany, the weather was anticipated by badgers. When Germans began settling in Pennsylvania, however, badgers weren't so readily available: The easiest hibernating animal to locate was the groundhog. In 1887, a newspaper editor began circulating the idea that one groundhog in particular, Punxsutawney Phil, was a meteorological wonder. Before long, the entire country became preoccupied with Phil’s prognosticating, and an annual tradition was born.

Phil isn't the only one in the business of long-range forecasting. The Old Farmer's Almanac, a yearly digest of upcoming weather patterns for large geographical areas, is prepared up to 18 months in advance: Its editors claim an 80 percent accuracy rate, though some meteorologists dispute the viability of assessing weather more than two weeks out.

In 2017, Phil "predicted" six more weeks of winter; it turned out to be the second-warmest February on record. And last year, Phil again saw his shadow, but the month resulted in multiple new record high temperatures, including 80 degree days in typical winterscapes like Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., and several Midwestern and southern towns had record rainfall. 

This story first ran in 2018.

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What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Happens If I Don't Pay My Taxes on Time?

Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While death and taxes may be the only true certainties in life, somehow Tax Day always seems to sneak up on us. So what happens if tax season slips your mind, and you just don't file anything?

It depends. If you already know you're not going to get your taxes done by Tax Day, you can file for an extension. You can get an extra six months to file federal taxes by filling out a form and estimating (and paying) how much you'll owe for that year.

While you may be granted a filing extension, you are still required to pay your taxes by the regular due date: If you don't hand the IRS at least an estimated amount by April 15, you'll be charged a fee equal to .5 percent of the tax you owed in the first place per month it was left unpaid (up to 25 percent). If you ignore repeated notices from the IRS, that .5 percent increases to 1 percent per month. And you'll have to pay interest on the money you haven't given over (3 percent plus the federal short-term rate, which changes every three months, compounded each day).

If you don't file any federal income tax return at all by mid-April, you'll be slapped with a fine—5 percent of the amount you already owe for each month you're overdue, up to 25 percent. If you file your return more than two months late without a good excuse, you'll pay a minimum of $135 in penalty fees, or the balance of the tax you owe, if that total is less than $135. (According to the IRS's website, "The total penalty for failure to file and pay can be 47.5 percent [22.5 percent late filing and 25 percent late payment] of the tax owed.")

If you do a little math, you'll see that it usually pays to go ahead and file your return or get an extension, even if you can't pay your taxes immediately. Here's how Turbotax explains it:

Example: Let's say you didn't file your return or an extension by April 15, and you still owe the IRS an additional $1000.

Scenario 1: You file an extension on or before April 15 and pay your $1000 bill on April 25 (10 days late). Your penalty would be $5 (the 0.5 percent late-payment penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 2: You didn't file an extension, and you file your return on April 25 (10 days late) along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be $50 (the 5 percent late-filing penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 3: You file your return five years late, along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be around $534 (the maximum late-filing penalty of 25 percent applied to $1000, plus 5 percent interest compounded daily assuming the interest rate doesn't change).

If you don't owe any taxes because your employer withheld more than necessary and you are due to get a tax refund, you have three years to file your taxes before the IRS will keep that money. So as long as you get around to it by April 2022, you'll still get that money back. After those three years, the IRS will keep your whole refund, and it won't count toward next year's tax bill, either.

Say you just don't want to pay your taxes (a crime, just to be clear). How long before the IRS will come after you?

If your penalties and back-taxes add up to more than $25,000, someone from the IRS is going to come knocking at your door. In 2016, the IRS investigated 206 people for regularly failing to file their taxes, and put 159 people in jail for an average of three years. (Remember, it was the IRS that took down Al Capone.)

If you are a chronic non-filer and don't file your taxes even after warnings from the IRS, the government will go ahead and estimate what you owe, calculating what's called a "substitute for return." This total doesn't include deductions that you might have been eligible for, meaning that if you let the government do your taxes for you, you'll probably end up with a heftier bill.

And that's just at the federal level. While states vary on how they treat people who don't file their taxes, they slap penalties and interest on late returns and payments, too. Some states will even take your federal tax refund to pay your state back taxes. However, in many states, being approved for a federal tax extension also gets you an automatic extra six months on your state income taxes.

The lesson: If there's any chance you'll be late filing your return this year, ask for an extension ASAP.

A version of this story was first published in 2016.

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