How Do Animals React To A Total Solar Eclipse?
How do pets, birds and wildlife respond to a solar eclipse? Now is your chance to find out and to share what you observe!
This piece was a Forbes Editor’s Pick.
Considering that there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on Earth every 18 months, on average, and that humans have studied these celestial events for hundreds of years, you’d think that we know absolutely everything there is to know about solar eclipses. But if you think that, well, you’d be wrong.
One of the more obvious questions to investigate is how animals react to a solar eclipse. It may surprise you to learn that few formal observations have been published on this topic. But this egregious oversight means that you, as a citizen scientist, can contribute your observations to the literature.
The California Academy of Sciences is asking citizen scientists to record observations of animal behavior as part of their Life Responds project using their free iNaturalist app. Basically, they are looking for behavioral observations of animals from the largest geographic area ever covered by observers during any solar eclipse so far.
Specifically, the Life Responds team is asking citizen scientists to download the iNaturalist app and create an account. Choose in advance the animal or plant you will observe so you can practice making observations. On eclipse day, the Life Responds team wants you to make a minimum of three observations: the first will be 30 minutes before totality; the second will during totality; and the third will be 30 minutes after totality. In addition to written notes, your observations can include photographs or video.
Which animal or plant will you choose to observe? Will you go to a zoo, a park or nature area to observe your organism? Will you watch insects or wild birds or livestock near your house? Or perhaps you may instead observe a beloved pet or aquarium fishes? And what sorts of behaviors might you see?
A quick look through the literature indicates that most animals and birds react to a total solar eclipse much like they do to nighttime: for example, bees and ants return to their nests and daytime birds return to their roosts in preparation to sleep; nighttime birds become noisy and active; bats start flying and hunting; mosquitoes start biting; and dairy cattle stop grazing, since they prefer to eat during daylight.
“You can explore this yourself with your own pets, or by watching local wildlife, especially birds,” suggests NASA on their website.
As I was looking through the literature, I ran across two particularly interesting observations. First, a team of observers who were in tropical Mexico for the 1994 solar eclipse found that a almost all colonial orb-weaving spiders took down their webs within one minute of totality (ref) — and this behavioral response was prevented in another group of the same species of spiders by shining a light on them. The authors of that paper also noted that different spider species reacted differently: some began taking down their webs before totality whilst others did not appear to be affected at all.
In my opinion, the most unexpected reactions were shown by a group of sixteen captive chimpanzees living in Atlanta, Georgia, during an annular eclipse on 30 May 1984.
“At 1214 hours on the day of the eclipse, when the sky began to darken and the temperature began to decrease, solitary females and females with infants moved to the top of a climbing structure. As the eclipse progressed, additional chimpanzees began to congregate on the climbing structure and to orient their bodies in the direction of the sun and moon,” write Jane Branch and Deborah Gust, both of Emory University at the time, in their report (ref).
“At 1223 hours, during the period of maximum eclipse, the animals continued to orient their bodies toward the sun and moon and to turn their faces upward. One juvenile stood upright and gestured in the direction of the sun and moon.”
The authors also noted that the chimpanzees did not show similar behaviors during a typical, daily sunset.
After reading that paper, I wondered whether any of those chimpanzees were blinded by the event, but was unable to find any follow-up commentary about that.
This map shows the path that the Great American Solar Eclipse will follow (or you can use NASA’s interactive Google eclipse map), which occurs one week from today on Monday, 21 August.
And this video provides some basic safety information for watching a solar eclipse:
George W. Uetz, Craig S. Hieber, Elizabeth M. Jakob, R. Stimson Wilcox, David Kroeger, Andrea McCrate, and Alison M. Mostrom (1994). Behavior of Colonial Orb-weaving Spiders during a Solar Eclipse, Ethology 96: 24–32 | doi:10.1111/j.1439–0310.1994.tb00878.x
Jane E. Branch and Devorah A. Gust (1986). Effect of Solar Eclipse on the Behavior of a Captive Group of Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), American Journal of Primatology 11:367–373 | doi:10.1002/ajp.1350110407
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Originally published at Forbes on 14 August 2017.