If you consider that there’s a solar eclipse somewhere on Earth around every 18 months 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 it turns out that’s not the case!
It may surprise you to learn that few formal observations have been published on the topic of how animals and plant life respond to solar eclipses.
A quick look through the current 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 cattle stop grazing, since they prefer to eat during daylight.
We also came across a few particularly interesting observations.
First, a team of observers who were in tropical Mexico for the 1994 solar eclipse found that almost all colonial orb-weaving spiders took down their webs within one minute of totality and this behavioral response was prevented in another group of the same species of spiders by shining a light on them during the eclipse. 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.
Another fascinating find was what was observed of chimpanzees living at a sanctuary in Atlanta, Georgia, during an annular eclipse on May 30, 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
“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 Great American Solar Eclipse, which occurs one week from today on Monday, Aug. 21, will follow a path from the west coast to the east across the United States and will provide the opportunity for millions of people to observe how animals and plants in their vicinity react to it and document it using a new app!
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. The scientists are asking people to create an account and 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. Check it out here.
Photo credit: The Daily Mail