In 2012, Elise Ricard was on an Australian beach, watching the Moon obscure the Sun in a total solar eclipse, when she noticed something weird: the birds in the rainforest behind her had fallen silent. “It was a great feeling of unity with the other forms of life on this planet,” Ricard says. “There were other living things on the planet that were responding to something celestial.”
On Monday, Americans will have the same rare opportunity to watch how the natural world reacts when the Sun goes dark. Total solar eclipses are known for making some animals go haywire, and Ricard wants people to record what they’re seeing. She works at the California Academy of Sciences, and she’s spearheading a citizen science project called Life Responds. Powered by the app iNaturalist, Life Responds invites eclipse watchers to document how plants and animals react to the unusual midday darkness.
The idea is that if enough people record their observations before, during, and after the eclipse, patterns might start to emerge, says iNaturalist creator Ken-ichi Ueda. “Maybe millipedes behave differently during an eclipse, and no one bothered to look!” he says. “That’s what’s so appealing about citizen science. The more people you have making observations, the more likely you are to get these unusual kinds of observations.”
Whether you’re in the path of the Moon’s shadow, or even just experiencing a partial eclipse somewhere else in the US, you can participate in this project. Here’s what you need to know to help make some science.
Download the app and practice using it
The iNaturalist app has been around since 2008 — first as a website and then as a mobile app for both Android and iPhone. Science journalist Ed Yong called it “a cross between Shazam and an old-fashioned field guide.”
Give it a try in your backyard or nearby park before eclipse day, so you’re familiar with it: you can upload a photo of an animal or plant, or even just record notes about what you see. The app autofills its metadata, like when and where the photo was taken. Then, you can attempt to ID it yourself, or pick from the app’s suggestions. The app has just launched an automated identification tool that uses artificial intelligence to come up with a possible ID. (For now, the feature is only available for iPhone and on the website.) If all you know about your photo is that it shows a plant, you can just enter “plant” and upload your observation. Other users can then help confirm, narrow down, or dispute your identification.
Join the Life Responds project
To record what you see during the eclipse, you’ll need to join the Life Responds project within the app by clicking on the “More” tab, navigating into “Projects,” and selecting “Life Responds: Total Solar Eclipse 2017.” Teams from iNaturalist and the California Academy of Sciences will analyze all data gathered during the eclipse in the following weeks.
Make your eclipse plans
Seriously. If you haven’t done this already, pick a good spot to watch the eclipse. (And remember to buy solar filter glasses.) To figure out what time the Sun will be maximally obscured by the Moon in your area, you can use this tool, created by Vox.
Pick your organisms
As soon as you get to your viewing location, pick which plants or animals you’ll want to watch during the eclipse so you don’t scramble to find a subject when the Sun goes dark. Flowers might fold up their petals, spiders might roll up their webs, the birds near you could settle down to sleep. Pick whatever you like — even your pet if you want.
Log your observations
You’ll need to make three individual observations for each of the organisms you picked at specific times: the first about half an hour before the Sun is completely covered, the second within five minutes of totality, and the third 30 minutes after. (You can select the timing category your observation falls in in the app.)
If three observations is too much and you want to pick just one, try to do it right around totality, Ricard says. Also, if you’re in an area where you’re only going to experience a partial eclipse, you should take photos when the Sun reaches maximum coverage.
You don’t need cell service for the app to work. You can always upload your observations later, when you’re back at home on Wi-Fi. As long as your GPS is on when you take your photos, your location will be recorded. But it’s a good idea to write down in the notes section what time you made your observations — just in case.
And if the subject you picked isn’t changing at all during the eclipse, write that down in the “Notes” field of the observation view. That’s valuable data as well! “We're interested in seeing not only which plants and animals respond to the eclipse, but also how far away you have to be from totality for it to not have any effect,” writes Alison Young, a curator at the California Academy of Sciences.
Enjoy the eclipse!
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so don’t just stare at your phone and forget to look up.
After the eclipse is done, the iNaturalist team and the California Academy of Sciences will sort through the data. The results will come out sometime in September, according to Young, and you’ll be able to find them on the California Academy of Sciences’ website or within the Life Responds project in the app, under the “News” tab. Enjoy being a citizen scientist on eclipse day!