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The eclipse’s effects on animals will be wild

The eclipse’s effects on animals will be wild

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Solar eclipses confuse hippos, and piss pigeons off

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Eclipses make hippos disgruntled.
Eclipses make hippos disgruntled.
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When the Moon blotted out the Sun over Zimbabwe during a 2001 eclipse, a pod of sleeping hippos woke up from their nap. Astronomer Paul Murdin was part of a team of 250 people documenting the eclipse’s effects, and he had been put on hippo duty. He watched the massive mammals stand and start their evening trek from an island in the middle of the Zambezi river to the water’s edge.

The hippos were still walking through the water when the Sun returned, and they spent the rest of the afternoon mostly submerged and looking disgruntled, Murdin later reported. The next day, their daily routine seemed off to him. Two lions in the area, however, appeared unperturbed by the daytime darkness.

Hippos aren’t the only animals disturbed by total solar eclipses. There are anecdotal reports of bugs, birds, and even fish noticing this rare celestial phenomenon, and changing up their behavior as a result. So researchers across the country are keeping an eye out for what happens during Monday’s total solar eclipse. Here’s what they — and you — might see:

Bugs

When a total solar eclipse passed over New England in 1932, the Boston Society of Natural History asked people to send in their observations of the natural world — much like the California Academy of Sciences is doing for Monday’s eclipse. Back in 1932, the public reported that crickets became excessively chirpy during totality, but cicadas stopped singing.

Mosquitoes might also step up their activity, which Murdin reported happening in 2001. “Mosquitoes and midges immediately appeared at totality and bit unsuspecting and unprepared eclipse watchers,” he wrote. Unfortunately, unlike the hippos, the mosquitoes’ daily routines weren’t disrupted by the daytime Sun — and they came back in force, right on schedule, at sunset.

The eclipse could have the opposite effect on bees, which might quiet down since they usually go looking for nectar during the daytime and rest at night. Candice Galen, a professor at the University of Missouri, which is in the path of totality for Monday’s eclipse, is deploying microphones at local bee hangouts to find out.

Birds

In 1544, an eclipse-watcher reportedly noticed that birds went quiet when the sky went dark — a phenomenon modern day viewers have experienced as well. There’s also a (probably apocryphal) story about Thomas Edison, who set up his telescope in an abandoned henhouse to watch the 1878 eclipse. During totality, the story goes, he was mobbed by chickens coming home to roost, flying “in, around, and over the frantic inventor.”

We’ll have a better idea about how chickens react to solar eclipses after Monday. Tim Reinbott, assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Missouri, set up cameras in a nearby henhouse. The experiment was almost ruined when a fox killed the flock he’d been planning to observe. But, fortunately, he was able to get his hands on some loaner chickens — just in time.

Thomas Edison (second from the right, with crossed arms) visited Rawlins, Wyoming for the 1878 solar eclipse.
Thomas Edison (second from the right, with crossed arms) visited Rawlins, Wyoming for the 1878 solar eclipse.
Photo: Carbon County Historical Museum via the National Park Service

During the 2001 eclipse in Zimbabwe, Murdin reported that birds’ behavior depended on the species. Owls hooted during totality, but doves went quiet. Water birds like egrets stopped feeding and took off for their nighttime roosts. When the Sun reappeared, the doves “greeted the reappearance of light with a ‘dawn chorus,’” he wrote. Scientists in Serbia noted that during an eclipse in 1999, hens stood completely still during totality, swallows acted normally, and pigeons became “agitated and aggressive.”

But, at least, you probably don’t need to fear an unexpected deluge of excrement from those agitated pigeons: “I think [pigeons] excrete as needed rather than in response to specific external stimuli or time of day,” pigeon expert Aaron Blaisdell tells The Verge.

Bats

Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)
Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus)
Photo: National Park Service

It’s possible that some bats, especially those roosting in trees, might wake up as the Sun goes dark, according to Jordan Shroyer, a graduate student at the University of Missouri. If mosquitoes come out during the twilight before and after totality, then the bats that eat mosquitoes might as well, Shroyer says. To find out, he set out devices to listen for the ultrasonic calls bats use to echolocate, and he’ll also be keeping watch on trees where he knows the bats roost. His study subjects? Eastern red bats and big brown bats, two species that live in Missouri.

But not all bats might go haywire: a team of researchers in Mexico reported that vampire bats didn’t even seem to notice the solar eclipse darkening the sky outside their cave in 1991. Another observer in Poland saw no change in the bats that were fast asleep under a church’s eaves during a solar eclipse in 1954. He speculated, “Even if they had noticed the darkness, it probably lasted too short a time for these mammals to make the decision to leave their hiding place.”

If you want to help scientists learn more about how animals behave during the eclipse, there’s an app for that. Just, watch out for pigeons — and bring some mosquito repellant.