April 12, 2024

Fear, bedtime and mating: how animals may react to the solar eclipse

As millions of people prepare for the total solar eclipse that will take place over North America on Monday, the animals in that affected area – in homes, on farms, in zoos and in the wild – have missed the news that the moon will block out the sun and change the day briefly turns into the night.

How they respond to that rapid and unexpected change in light and temperature, which will last up to four and a half minutes in some places, is a mystery.

Cows can sneak into their stables before bedtime. Flamingos can huddle together out of fear. The giant Galápagos tortoise in slow motion can even get frisky and mate.

Circadian rhythms can take a noticeable hit, with nocturnal animals accidentally waking up and starting their day only to realize that the night is already over. And then there will be some animals, perhaps especially lazy house cats or warthogs focused on foraging, that may not think twice about the dark sky.

“Everyone wants to see how they’re going to react,” said Robert Shumaker, the CEO and president of the Indianapolis Zoo, who will experience nearly four minutes of darkness. It is one of several prominent zoos along the path of totality, a gentle arc stretching from Texas to Maine, where researchers, animal keepers, volunteers and the public will study the animals’ response to the eclipse.

Dr. Shumaker, an expert in animal behavior and cognition, said that “of course most animals will notice when something unusual is happening.”

Most animals will likely be confused by the darkness and begin their nighttime routines, said Dr. M. Leanne Lilly, a veterinary behaviorist at Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

But the way people react to the eclipse – looking at the sky, expressing excitement or gathering in a group – can affect domesticated animals, such as dogs or cats, because pets can behave strangely if their humans behave strangely, said dr. Lilly.

“That can make all of our pets feel like things are not as safe and predictable as they should be,” said Dr. Lilly, adding that any unusual human behavior can bother pets because they are “domesticated to take care of us. ”

“Maybe we’re the problem,” she said, laughing.

How animals will react to solar eclipses can only provide hints about animal behavior, as the relatively few studies on the subject are often contradictory. A 1560 survey cited that “birds fell to the ground.” Other studies showed that birds roosted, became silent, or continued to sing and coo – or flew straight into houses. Dogs either barked or whined, or didn’t bark or whine.

An investigation into the 1932 solar eclipse, thought to be the first comprehensive study on the subject and which included observations from the public, explained that there were “many conflicting testimonies” from people who had observed mammals. It was concluded that several animals showed the strongest reactions: squirrels ran into the forest and cattle and sheep headed for their barns.

The research shows that animals in zoos showed little or no response, and Dr. Shumaker doesn’t expect the animals at the Indianapolis Zoo to show any unusual reaction because “they’re monitoring a lot of things.”

We think this will be a very casual and easy experience for the animals,” he said, adding that some might experience “a little bit of confusion” about what is going on. “I certainly don’t expect it to be alarming for them.”

Dr. Shumaker is as curious as anyone to see what the animals will do, and in 2017 Adam Hartstone-Rose, now a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University, tried to get answers. Before that total solar eclipse crossed the United States, he launched a formal survey of animals at the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, SC, resulting in what was probably the broadest survey of animals during a solar eclipse since the 1932 effort.

Just as he will do next week at the Fort Worth Zoo, Dr. Hartstone-Rose a group of researchers, animal keepers and volunteers to observe animals before, during and after totality.

About three-quarters of the seventeen species his team studied, including mammals, birds and reptiles, showed a behavioral response to the solar eclipse, with many of those animals thinking the change in light meant it was time to get ready for bed. A smaller group of animals, including giraffes, baboons, gorillas, flamingos, parakeets (a type of parrot) and one Komodo dragon, showed behavior that was unusual and could be interpreted as fear.

According to the study, the baboons were running around their enclosure as totality approached, and one of them walked in circles for about 25 minutes. One male gorilla loaded the glass. The flamingos huddled, surrounding their young, making their voices loud and looking up at the sky, which is “the kind of thing they might do if they think there’s a predator nearby,” said Dr. Hartstone-Rose.

The parakeets became active and noisy just before totality, and during totality they flew together to one side of their exhibit. One Komodo dragon rushed to its den, but the door was closed, and it ran around “erratically” until it became light again.

He noted that it was “quite possible” that the behavior was not caused by the eclipse, but by the large crowds and noises in the zoo, including fireworks exploding in the distance.

Still, the giraffes’ behavior that day in South Carolina was similar to the animals’ behavior during solar eclipses elsewhere, including at the Nashville Zoo in 2017, as well as in the wild in Zambia during a 2001 solar eclipse.

“Most of us expected the giraffes to say, ‘Oh, it’s dark, so it’s time for bed,’” said Alyson Proveaux, the Riverbanks Zoo’s mammal curator and one of the giraffe observers in 2017. But their response was much more dramatic.

Normally, the Riverbanks Zoo’s giraffes chew lettuce, chew their cud, grind around or play with their enrichment toys. But when the sky darkened, they stopped eating and huddled in the back of their enclosure, according to the study, while someone paced and rocked them. As daylight slowly returned, several of them began to gallop for several minutes, which was extremely strange. Giraffes also galloped during the solar eclipse at the Nashville Zoo and in Zambia.

“They are creatures of habit,” Ms. Proveaux said. “So we turned their world upside down.”

In another part of the Riverbanks Zoo, just before totality, the Galápagos tortoises did something even stranger that the study described as a “novel response.” Instead of moving slowly through their area as they usually do, they grouped together and two of them began to mate. During totality, all four turtles moved faster than normal.

Dr. Hartstone-Rose is curious to see if these responses will be replicated by animals at the Fort Worth Zoo, where he will likely keep an eye on bonobos, which are similar to chimpanzees. He said bonobos often engage in sexual behavior to relieve anxiety and it will be fascinating to see their response to the unexpected darkness.

He is also asking the public to formally observe the animals around them during the eclipse and submit these findings to him so he can include them in his research. Those animals include domestic animals, livestock and wild animals, which are also known to change their behavior during eclipses.

Scientists have used different types of technology to record the reactions of wildlife to a solar eclipse. For the 2017 solar eclipse, scientists used radar data from weather stations across the country to study how flying animals reacted as day turned to night.

As the sky darkened, the amount of biological activity in the atmosphere dropped, they found, indicating that insects were landing and birds were beginning to roost. In some places, there were also brief pulses of activity during totality, as some nocturnal creatures – possibly including bats, some insects and birds that migrate at night – came to life.

Still, the brief period of darkness did not seem significant enough to fully convince the animals that night had fallen. “It’s a pretty muted response,” says Andrew Farnsworth, visiting scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and author of the study.

Some animals, including many butterflies, are particularly sensitive to temperature. During the 2017 solar eclipse, Robert Michael Pyle, an ecologist and butterfly expert in southwestern Washington, spent hours carefully mapping conditions in his garden and as temperatures dropped, skippers, a common butterfly species, disappeared. “Two degrees brings the butterflies back to bed,” he said.

Although less researched, plants, which require the sun for sustenance, are also affected by eclipses. “When the sun goes away, photosynthesis goes down,” says Daniel Beverly, an ecophysiologist at Indiana University who documented that slowdown in big sagebrush during the 2017 solar eclipse. The findings highlight the importance of circadian rhythms beyond the animal kingdom, he said.

And careful observations of what organisms do during an eclipse can yield new insights that extend beyond the event itself. The solar eclipse “is a kind of natural experiment, where light and temperature are manipulated on a massive scale,” said Candace Galen, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Missouri who found that bees went silent during the 2017 period of totality.

Finally, Dr. Hartstone-Rose: “who knows what goes through a giraffe’s head.” But his goal is to collect as much data as possible and try to find out.

He does have one clear answer to a question he is asked again and again: Should you put goggles on your dog during a solar eclipse?

“As a fashion statement, I’m all for it, so go for it,” he said. ‘But for safety reasons they don’t have to do that. Animals don’t look at the sun.”

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