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Russia's Animal Kingdom Sees The Future -- And It Doesn't Include Winter

A marmot pictured at St. Petersburg's Leningrad Zoo on February 12.
A marmot pictured at St. Petersburg's Leningrad Zoo on February 12.

Two St. Petersburg marmots roll out of their den, peer around in front of the cameras, and confirm what seemingly everyone in the Russian animal kingdom already knows -- winter isn't coming this year.

The observation made this week by marmots Izhorika and Avgustin, dubbed the "chief meteorologists" of the Leningrad Zoo, was in line with earlier conclusions drawn 5,500 kilometers away in Irkutsk by Rambo the hedgehog, an anonymous honey-badger couple, and fellow marmots Bai and Baklusha.

In the south-central Siberian city of Barnaul, the February warmth awoke Zhora the bear. Flowers have been spotted blooming early, and even ticks and mosquitoes are emerging from dormancy.

All across Russia, record-high temperatures have tricked countless plants and animals into thinking spring has arrived, and science backs them up.

"This year is unusual," Igor Shumakov, who heads the Rosgidromet state hydrometeorology and environmental monitoring service, conceded to reporters while opening a new meteorological center in the central Russian city of Izhevsk on February 11. "In the European parts of Russia, according to our scientists, spring will come early…probably by a few weeks."

Warm December

It's debatable whether winter ever came at all. December was relatively toasty, with temperatures in snowless Moscow hitting record highs. Rain was widely forecast for New Year's, and January went down as the second warmest in history in Russia.

And while some areas of the country have experienced somewhat normal weather in February -- the Far East, for example, is colder than usual -- other regions have seen unseasonable thunderstorms and even flooding resulting from the warmth of the European mega-cyclone Petra colliding with an Arctic cold front.

"Spring was felt the other day in the Zabaikalye region," wrote the Russian forecaster Gidromettsentr on February 11, remarking that heavy snow fell in some parts of southern Siberia, while record rainfall was recorded in other areas of the region.

"The Russian Far East remains the last region of the country where the weather has not yet gone crazy," declared the commercial FOBOS weather center on February 13.

Zhora the bear, who awoke early at Barnaul zoo, is ready for spring.
Zhora the bear, who awoke early at Barnaul zoo, is ready for spring.

The weather has been so whacky of late that State Duma Deputy Aleksei Zhuravlyov, who heads the nationalist Rodina party, said in January that he was convinced the changes were "not random."

Telling Govorit Radio that the "Americans know" that "it will be a disaster" if Russia's permafrost layer melts, he refloated his theory that the United States was testing "climate weapons" on Russia.

Consiracy theories aside, the unseasonal weather is sowing confusion among Russian plants and animals.

Barnual Zoo Director Sergei Pisarev said there is nothing to be concerned about in the case of the Himalayan bear Zhora, who reportedly awoke from hibernation peppy and hungry way ahead of schedule last week.

"He often gets up during thaws and asks for food," Pisarev told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments. In addition, he said, Zhora grew up without a mother and "no one taught him how to hibernate," so he often wakes up and tries to communicate with zoo visitors and employees.

But in the wild, Pisarev said, such phenomena are rare -- although potentially dangerous to bear and human alike.

"A bear that awakens earlier than usual behaves aggressively, including in relation to humans," he said. "This is because in winter, due to the snow, it is difficult for a bear to find food in nature and he is forced to go out among people."

Pisarev added that "this winter is special for Altai," the south-central region that borders Kazakhstan and whose capital is Barnual. "It is very snowy, but hasn't been this warm for 100 years."

'Winter Isn't Coming'

When Izhorik and Avgustin finally went into hibernation with their three pups at St. Petersburg's Leningrad Zoo, the feeling was that visitors would not see them until well after February 2 -- when the marmot's close cousin in North America, the groundhog, celebrates its own weather-prognosticating day -- because "in Russia it gets warmer much later."

The couple made it through a warm January, but could not sleep off the relative heat of February, prompting the zoo to post a video of one of the marmots scurrying around outside its den.

"Winter isn't coming," the zoo announced in social-media posts, attributing the Groundhog Day-esque prediction to Izhorik and Avgustin, and recalling that the two came out of hibernation in March in 2019 and not until April the year before.

The Irkutsk Zoogallery private zoo and nature house was among the many Russian zoos conducting weather prognostication on February 2, with house marmots Bai and Baklusha spending the day awake and grinding down their constantly growing incisors in preparation for the spring weight-gain season.

The nearby Irkutsk Zoo, meanwhile, explained the Russian version of Groundhog Day by saying that "if the animal is active and willingly leaves its shelter, then the warm weather will not take long to arrive. If it remains in hiding, then the winter may drag on."

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The zoo reported that a pair of badgers had been spotted prematurely on February 2, and that keepers would be carefully monitoring them because the mustelids would have a hard time returning to a normal body rhythm and would require a special diet.

Rambo the European hedgehog, of course, had already predicted a "warm and early spring," according to the Irkutsk Zoo.

"Rambo's predictions always come true," the zoo's statement added.