Help solve an ancient mystery about the eclipse: Figure out what the animals do

Help solve an ancient mystery about the eclipse: Figure out what the animals do
Posted at 10:00 AM, Aug 18, 2017

While most of us will be looking up at the eclipse August 21, you may also want to look around and take a close listen, because something unusual could be happening with the animals on our planet -- at least, we think it could.

"There are many more scientific papers about Sasquatch than about animal behavior during an eclipse," said Adam Hartstone-Rose, adjunct scientist at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina.


The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden has been fielding dozens of calls from the public about what the zoo plans to do for the big day. It and a handful of other animal parks are in the path of full totality. That means, with the full eclipse over their zoos, there's a chance to enlist the public to see what, if anything, animals are doing when their sun disappears and the temperature drops.

If you have ever put one of those thunder jackets on to calm your pooch during a storm (other than to take cute pictures), you know that animals can be more sensitive to natural phenomena than humans, toiling away in windowless, temperature-controlled offices. Well, if you don't count the human excitement that comes from taking selfies while wearing those funky eclipse glasses.

The Nashville Zoo will be handing out those funky glasses on eclipse day, and it's encouraging visitors to leave their animal observations on the zoo's social media page or to make comments on the app INaturalist. You too can use that app to share photos and jot down notes on animal or even plant behavior, even if you're not at the zoo. However, the scientists would likely prefer you keep your observations to animals of the fluffy and scaled variety; photos of your bizarre co-worker's behavior during the eclipse may be a better fit for Facebook or Instagram.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga has plans to watch its lemurs carefully. There is evidence from past eclipses that lemurs "behave oddly during these events," according to Thom Benson, the aquarium's director of external affairs. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is betting something could happen with its collection of chimps, which it will be watching closely.

The director at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden predicts that its animals may display subtle change. "We don't think we will see the giraffes doing back flips that day," said Ed Diebold, Riverbanks' director of animal collections and conservation. "We are curious, though, to see what will happen."

Whatever change they experience, Diebold and his team will be ready. Hartstone-Rose and his scientists, along with the keepers who know the animals best, and the public who will be given surveys to record their observations will all be ready. If they see anything, they hope to include these data in a research paper. The experts there will likely concentrate on the primates, the elephants, the giraffes, the birds and the reptiles, most of which have demonstrated interesting behavior in prior eclipse events.

"There are interesting philosophical questions too, because we don't know how to tell when a giraffe perceives the sun, but we know they are affected by this," Hartstone-Rose said. He thinks that if some of the more vocal animals get anxious, they'll start making more noise. Some animals may prepare for bed, others may wake up, but not all animals will care.

"Giraffes, for instance, don't have a lot of reason to look up, because there are no predators for them that come from above, so the staff feels there won't be enormous changes there, but there may be with others, and hopefully we can tease the changes out."

Scientists have been watching animal behavior during eclipses for centuries, although the reliability of some accounts may be more believable than others. In the 1500s, an astronomer noted that birds fell out of trees and stopped singing. Keep in mind, scientists in that era also thought leeches were a cure for many ailments too, so no, you don't have to skip lunch outside to avoid the falling pigeons.

In the Victorian era, a scientist noted that ants that were "busily carrying their burdens, stopped and remained motionless till the light reappeared." And in the more recent era, scientists during a 1997 solar eclipse in Mexico noticed that lizards also seemed to react and perform the same activities as they would during sunset, but that may be a little harder to observe, since they buried themselves below the soil making up their little lizard beds.

Another official-sounding scientific group called the New England Eclipse Behavior Committeedid a pre-Internet-era version of crowdsourcing and had skilled and unskilled observers send in observations. The notes show that some bird species returned to their roost and quieted down. Others noted that the hippos remained on alert, partially hidden underwater; captive squirrels got agitated; bees stopped humming; butterflies disappeared; painted turtles sought shelter; chickens huddled together; cows, however, seemed "quite unconcerned."

Other studies have shown that the eclipse can be a rude awakening for some nocturnal creatures. Bugs that you would normally see active at dusk or at night have gotten active for a few minutes during previous eclipses. That means mosquitoesmay come out of their nap for their midnight snack during the event, so bring your bug spray if you plan to be outside. Thankfully, most of the pests did disappear when the heat of the sun came back. Scientists have noticed frogs start singing during the eclipse.

The temperature drop that comes with an eclipse also seems to impact some animals. In 1991, scientists who happened to be collecting cicadas in the Arizona desert noticed that the bugs went silent when coverage of the sun reached about 50%. Typically, male cicadas sing to attract a mate. Scientists don't think the eclipse acted like a cold shower to kill the romantic mood; rather, these particular cicadas needed radiant energy to elevate their body temperature enough to be physically able to sing. There was good news for cicada romance, in that love did win out, and they went back to their courting song about 20 minutes after the eclipse.

Chimps, who don't need the sun to chat among themselves, also seemed to react. During the 1984 eclipse, scientists at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta noticed that the females with babies and some of the solo gals all began to gather on a climbing structure when it started to get dark. The females, who typically socialized on the structure and would normally turn toward each other, instead faced the direction of the eclipse and started to watch the sky. One young chimp even stood and pointed at the eclipse.

It wasn't as dramatic as the opening scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey," but the animals did go back to their normal chimp business once the eclipse was over.

As far as your pets, you can watch them, but don't count on a viral video. Studies have shown more mixed results. A study from the 1970s found that pet rabbits mostly slept. A few caged birds got agitated. Some dogs ignored the eclipse; a few seemed scared; a few barked when it was over. Cats, well, cats were cats. Some played, some meowed, but for the most part they slept, again showing off their best quality, as anyone who owns a cat knows: Our feline friends think the sun and the moon revolve around them, so what's the big deal about a more little shade?

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