Animal IQ

Animals In An Eclipse Get All Sorts Of Confused

Curiosity's coverage of the 2017 eclipse is brought to you by Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans.

If you didn't know it was coming, a total solar eclipse would freak you right out. The moon covering the sun so that the peak of daytime turns into the dead of night — only to become daytime again minutes later — would probably make you pray and curse and do a rain dance simultaneously. Well, welcome to being a wild animal. There are no animal astronomers, so wildlife has no idea what's going on when an eclipse takes place. As a result, they do some very weird things.


Eyes To The Sky And Ears To The Ground

Some animals react predictably enough. To diurnal animals, darkness means it's time to sleep and daylight means it's time to wake up, so when an eclipse makes those two things happen in super-speed, it's reasonable for them to act accordingly. "The birds behave as if the disappearance of the sun means evening, and the return of the sun means morning — in time-lapse of course," Max Planck Institute ornithologist Wolfgang Fiedler told Deutsche Welle. Crepuscular animals, on the other hand, tend to become active at dusk, which is why the eerie darkness of an eclipse might bring out crickets, frogs, bats, and owls.

That means that if you witness an eclipse, you'll want to keep your ears open just as wide as your eyes. As the moon overtakes the sun, birdsong will likely go silent, and you might hear the chirps of crickets and the buzz of bullfrogs instead.

This Is An Animal On An Eclipse

Most examples like this come from anecdotes; a handful of people recall seeing wildlife acting a certain way, and recall it later. But there have been a few scientific studies into the subject. During the total solar eclipse of June 2001, astronomer Paul Murdin and about 250 naturalists camped out in Zimbabwe to perform a systematic study of animal behavior. They found that some animals acted as you might expect ("Baboons stopped feeding and set off, possibly to their roosting place, but on the reappearance of light they settled again quickly, where they were. Baboons are rather matter-of-fact.") and some didn't react at all (The elephants observed ... appeared sanguine about the eclipse, although two did join up and stand passively side by side for the period of greatest darkness.) but some were thrown off their game. A squirrel known to emerge every day around the time the eclipse took place didn't come out at all that day, and a bee colony that hid out in their hive as the eclipse began didn't reemerge until the following morning.

Hippos appeared the most confused. They generally hang out in the water during daytime, then move to the riverbanks to graze on land at dusk. When the sky began to darken, they started dispersing and walking toward the riverbanks like they would at sundown. They hadn't even reached shore when the light came back, and they just stopped, frozen, unsure of what to do next. "Their daily routine had been disrupted," Murdin wrote. "They were evidently not sure whether night had fallen and it was time for breakfast or whether the Sun had re-risen and it was time to go to bed."

The Strangest Of All

A study performed during the 1991 solar eclipse was even more rigorous. Scientists observed a colony of a particular species of orb-weaving spider, which are known to build their webs in the morning and take them down at sunset. To see how the eclipse might change that, they shined artificial light on some spiders' webs and left others untouched. Then they waited for the eclipse to do its thing. Sure enough, when the sky turned dark, only the spiders without artificial light began to disassemble their webs.

But for a truly spine-tingling reaction, you've gotta watch chimpanzees. Starting two days before the 1984 eclipse and extending to a day after, researchers watched a group of chimps at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. They acted normally in the days leading up to and following the eclipse, but their behavior during is eerily relatable. "At [12:14 p.m.] 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," the study authors write. "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. At [12:23 p.m.], 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." Yeah, baby chimp, we know what you mean. Eclipses blow our minds too.

Want to learn more about the eclipse? See our other articles here. And to hear an astronomer give even more insights into the eclipse, check out our special podcast episode here or click below to stream.

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Total Eclipse at the Zoo