Do eclipses drive an­i­mals wild? Help find out.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ja­son Bit­tel

In 1994, Doug Duncan was stand­ing on the Bo­li­vian Alti­plano with of group of fel­low as­tronomers. The sci­en­tists had come to wit­ness a to­tal so­lar eclipse, and as such, most of their gazes were turned sky­ward as the to­tal­ity ap­proached. That is, un­til a woman start­ing shout­ing, “Look down! Look down!”

“I can still hear her voice,” said Duncan, the di­rec­tor of the Fiske Plan­e­tar­ium at the Uni­ver­sity of Colorado. “So, we look down and … lla­mas. Lla­mas all over the place.”

They were sur­rounded by lla­mas — but not for long. Af­ter a few min­utes, the moon’s 70-mile-wide shadow passed on and light re­turned to the plateau, at which point the lla­mas formed a sort of pro­ces­sion and marched away. Duncan, who has wit­nessed 10 to­tal so­lar eclipses, said he still has no idea where the an­i­mals came from or what their be­hav­ior meant, if any­thing. But even as a sci­en­tist who knows more about space than camelids, he thought the way the lla­mas’ be­haved was cer­tainly weird.

An­other time, in the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, Duncan watched as a bunch of whales and dol­phins sur­faced and started cruis­ing back and forth in front of the ship he was on about five min­utes be­fore a to­tal eclipse. A few min­utes af­ter the sun had come back out and it was clear the world was not end­ing, the ma­rine mam­mals dis­ap­peared, just as the Bo­li­vian lla­mas had.

There are lots of these kinds of sto­ries — anec­do­tal re­ports of an­i­mals be­hav­ing strangely in the mo­ments lead­ing up to and af­ter a so­lar eclipse. Some say that when the moon scoots in front of the sun and the world goes dark, as it will across the United States on Aug. 21, birds stop singing and cows and horses start re­turn­ing to their barns as though it were time for bed.

These are pretty com­mon and con­sis­tent ob­ser­va­tions, said Angela Speck, di­rec­tor of astron­omy at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri. “And it doesn’t seem to mat­ter whether it’s hap­pen­ing in a ru­ral area or a city,” she said.

But when you start look­ing for rig­or­ous re­search on an­i­mal be­hav­ior dur­ing eclips-

es, the pick­ings are slim. One study found that colo­nial orb-weav­ing spi­ders ap­peared to start de­con­struct­ing their webs dur­ing an eclipse in Mex­ico in 1991. An­other study, from 1984, noted that a group of cap­tive chim­panzees in Ge­or­gia all seemed to con­gre­gate on a climb­ing struc­ture dur­ing the to­tal­ity. But a study of ru­mi­na­tion and graz­ing be­hav­ior in cat­tle dur­ing Europe’s 1999 eclipse found no ef­fect. Sim­i­larly, a group of cap­tive ba­boons in Chile seemed de­cid­edly meh about the eclipse in 1994.

The thing is, the world only gets a to­tal so­lar eclipse ap­prox­i­mately ev­ery 18 months, and the path of to­tal­ity varies de­pend­ing on where and when the moon crosses the sun’s rays. This makes study­ing an­i­mal be­hav­ior dur­ing an eclipse rather dif­fi­cult. The best ex­per­i­ments re­quire sci­en­tists to con­trol for vari­ables and re­peat the test many times to eval­u­ate its va­lid­ity. So even if we get some re­ally good ob­ser­va­tions this time around of, say, moose, the next to­tal so­lar eclipse won’t be un­til July 2019, and its path of to­tal­ity drifts over Chile and Ar­gentina, nei­ther of which is home to moose.

All of that said, sci­en­tists are well ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing the best out of im­per­fect study con­di­tions. And this year, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances may help us gather data about eclipse-ex­pe­ri­enc­ing crit­ters like never be­fore. In fact, sci­en­tists are hop­ing you might do­nate a lit­tle data to the cause.

All you have to do, they say, is whip out your smart­phone and down­load the iNat­u­ral­ist app. Cre­ated by the Cal­i­for­nia Academy of Sci­ences, iNat­u­ral­ist al­lows any­one to take a pic­ture of an an­i­mal (or plant or fungi or what­ever) and make an at­tempt to iden­tify it. Then oth­ers, in­clud­ing ex­perts, weigh in on whether your ID is cor­rect or not. Think of it as a bit like Poké­mon Go, only you’re try­ing to “catch” real crea­tures in­stead of Charizards and Va­pore­ons.

On the day of the eclipse, the app will fea­ture a spe­cial draw­down menu that al­lows you to record ob­ser­va­tions lead­ing up to, dur­ing and af­ter the astro­nom­i­cal event. Sim­ply keep an eye out for any in­ter­est­ing or un­usual be­hav­ior and snap a few pics while you en­joy the show.

“We’re hop­ing this is a way for peo­ple to be cu­ri­ous and make ob­ser­va­tions and think about how an­i­mal be­hav­ior is re­lated to the sun,” said Re­becca John­son, cit­i­zen sci­en­tist re­search co­or­di­na­tor for the Cal­i­for­nia Academy of Sci­ences.

What’s more, John­son said, all of the thou­sands of notes re­sult­ing from this project, which they are call­ing Life Re­sponds, could al­low re­searchers to es­tab­lish a base­line of be­hav­ior that they can mea­sure fu­ture eclipses against. It’s only through this mas­sive ag­gre­ga­tion of data — which has never be­fore been pos­si­ble — that they can start to rec­og­nize pat­terns and draw con­clu­sions.

“The whole idea of sci­ence, of course, is to turn some­thing from anec­dote into real data that you can study,” said Michelle Thaller, deputy di­rec­tor of sci­ence for com­mu­ni­ca­tions at NASA, which is in­clud­ing the Life Re­sponds project as part of its cit­i­zen sci­ence out­reach in con­junc­tion with the eclipse.

If you’re look­ing for places to find an­i­mals dur­ing the eclipse, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice has pro­vided a list, to the side, of more than a dozen wildlife refuges within the path of to­tal­ity. If get­ting out­doors isn’t re­ally your thing, you can par­tic­i­pate by go­ing to places like the Nashville Zoo, which is en­cour­ag­ing vis­i­tors to log ob­ser­va­tions by us­ing the iNat­u­ral­ist app or tag­ging the zoo on so­cial me­dia with the hash­tags #NashvilleZoo or #NZooE­clipse. While the zoo is home to plenty of big an­i­mals like pri­mates and gi­raffes, it’s the birds that might be the most in­ter­est­ing.

“I don’t think any­body knows for sure what the an­i­mals will do,” said Jim Bar­too, the zoo’s mar­ket­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor, “but my bet would be to watch the flamin­goes and the rhi­noc­eros horn­bills.”

Bar­too said the zoo’s avian staff thinks the birds may be more af­fected than other an­i­mals be­cause they’re used to be­ing brought in­side as the sun sets. And while zoo an­i­mals ob­vi­ously aren’t per­fect sub­sti­tutes for un­der­stand­ing the be­hav­ior of their wild coun­ter­parts, the eclipse of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to study an­i­mals that have be­come used to the rhythms of cap­tiv­ity. The zoo’s rhinoceroses, for in­stance, come out­side each day at 9 a.m. and re­turn to their pad­dock each night at 6 p.m. Who knows how they’ll re­act to a few min­utes of un­sched­uled dark­ness?

Of course, it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that the squir­rel, blue jay, rat­tlesnake or rhino you’re watch­ing doesn’t do a darn thing when the big mo­ment comes. Don’t worry, but do take notes. Af­ter all, log­ging the ab­sence of weird be­hav­ior is im­por­tant to sci­ence, too. (Good news: You don’t even have to be in the line of to­tal­ity to log an­i­mal be­hav­ior ob­ser­va­tions.)

One thing all the ex­perts agree on is that if you’re go­ing to at­tempt to watch the so­lar eclipse this month, be sure to wear proper eye pro­tec­tion. But don’t worry about get­ting a pair of glasses for Fido.

“An­i­mals are ac­tu­ally quite a bit smarter than we are when it comes to look­ing di­rectly at the sun,” says Thaller.

Daily Cam­era file

Doug Duncan, seen here in July 2015, says there are a lot of anec­do­tal re­ports of an­i­mals be­hav­ing strangely dur­ing a so­lar eclipse.

David Zalubowski, As­so­ci­ated Press file

An an­nu­lar so­lar eclipse is seen as the sun sets be­hind the Rocky Moun­tains from down­town Denver in 2012.

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