Image: Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania
Jeff Swensen  /  Getty Images
Groundhog handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil after Phil saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter during 126th annual Groundhog Day festivities on Thursday in Punxsutawney, Pa.
updated 2/2/2012 12:36:11 PM ET 2012-02-02T17:36:11

On Thursday, a roly-poly rodent named Punxsutawney Phil was hoisted from his burrow in front of TV cameras and cheering crowds and called upon to predict the weather. Phil emerged and saw his shadow, which, according to legend, means that winter is here to stay for six more weeks.

Weird tradition, huh?

See story about Phil's busy day of forecasting.

In fact, relying on rodents as forecasters may date back to the early days of Christianity in Europe, when clear skies on Candlemas Day (Feb. 2) were said to herald cold weather ahead. In Germany, the tradition morphed into a myth that if the sun came out on Candlemas, a hedgehog would cast its shadow, predicting snow all the way into May. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they transferred the tradition onto local fauna, replacing hedgehogs with groundhogs.

Groundhog Day is now kept alive by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, whose members care for Punxsutawney Phil year-round. (Phil lives in an enclosure in the Punxsutawney Memorial Library along with several other groundhogs.) Every year, the Groundhog Club rises early with their charge and takes him to a local hillside, Gobbler's Knob, for the weather-prediction ceremony.

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This year was Phil's 126th prognostication. (The club is tight-lipped about how many groundhogs have taken on the forecasting role over the decades, but marmots in captivity normally live about 10 years.)

Phil's supporters insist that he's preternaturally accurate at predicting winter's duration, but statistics don't quite bear out that claim. According to the Groundhog Club's records, Phil has predicted 99 long winters and 15 early springs, with nine years of records lost. Those predictions have been right only 39 percent of the time — 36 percent if you look at post-1969 predictions, when weather records are more accurate.

"If Punxsutawney Phil is right 39 percent of the time, that's much, much worse than a climatological prediction,” Tim Roche, a meteorologist at Weather Underground told LiveScience's sister site Life's Little Mysteries. "Even if you flip a coin, you'll still be right close to half of the time — that's a 50 percent accuracy rate. So you'll be better off flipping a coin than going by the groundhog's predictions."

Maybe so, but a coin wouldn't be nearly as cute.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

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