Milltown Mel, a groundhog who has for years offered his weather predictions on Groundhog Day, has died, his handlers say. They say Mel "recently crossed over the rainbow bridge" — and their scramble for a replacement rodent before Feb. 2 was fruitless.
Mel rose to celebrity status in Milltown, N.J., giving residents of the Garden State an idea of when to plant their springtime seeds. But he died at "a tough time of year, when most of his fellow groundhogs are hibernating," according to his handlers, who are known as the Milltown Wranglers.
"We will work hard on getting us a new weather prognosticator for next year," the Wranglers said, adding that New Jersey residents should "check out what all of Mel's cousins have to say" about the end of winter.
If it seems like you're heard this story of a New Jersey groundhog dying before, that's not just a Groundhog Day effect: in 2016, Sussex County's prognosticator, Stonewall Jackson, died on Groundhog Eve, according to NJ.com.
Mel spent last year's Groundhog Day in quarantine, due to the pandemic. But that didn't stop him from predicting an early spring for his community, which sits roughly halfway between Trenton and Newark.
"Yay!!! Mel - you are my favorite Groundhog!!! a fan wrote to the rodent on Facebook.
The longest-running Groundhog Day tradition in the U.S. centers around Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. Other season-predicting animals include Dunkirk Dave and Staten Island Chuck — Mel's neighbors in New York — and Buckeye Chuck in Marion, Ohio.
The tradition of consulting a rodent for a sign of an early spring or a late winter stems from the Christian tradition of Candlemas — which itself has roots in pagan observances.
"Candlemas was originally a Celtic festival marking the 'cross-quarter day,' or midpoint of the season," according to the Almanac website. "The Sun is halfway on its advance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox."