When is a groundhog a tortoise?
It sounds like it might be a riddle from a whimsical storybook or some age-old philosophical question, the kind of brainteaser that makes us ponder the nature of animalia, nature and the world.
But here's the straightforward answer: A groundhog is a tortoise when Californians speak of Mojave Maxine, and not Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil, at the start of February.
The furry superstar Punxsutawney Phil is the impressively toothed prognosticator who predicts if spring season will arrive early, or if winter will persist. On Feb. 2 each year, Phil emerges from his burrow to look at his shadow. No shadow? Spring's on the way. Shadow seen? Better bundle up for six more weeks. (Phil said there's more winter to come for 2017.)
Mojave Maxine's claim to animal-cute, season-predicting fame doesn't involve her shadow. At The Living Desert animal park in Palm Desert., Maxine's mavens -- devotees of the desert tortoise and schoolkids across the region -- keep an eye on her scrubby, rock-lined burrow, waiting for her to trundle out after a brumation, a reptile's hibernation period.
Now that Punxsutawney Phil's big moment has wrapped, when will Mojave Maxine emerge in 2017? Giving us all the tortoise-authenticated sign that spring in California, or at least the California desert, is definitely nigh?
There's a contest each year for students to guess the date and time the hard-shelled star will make her first cameo of the year.
One clue as to her pattern? Mojave Maxine left her burrow on Feb. 8 in 2016, so we may see her soon. Keep a watch on The Living Desert, which will announce the tortoise's emergence and the end of California winter.