by Whit Gibbons

September 3, 2017

You won’t have to wait long for the next solar eclipse, which will happen every day this year.

You just will not be in the right place to see it because most of the zones of totality will be in outer space and not on Earth. Except for the few hours of lunar eclipses (when the earth passes between the moon and the sun), a solar eclipse is happening constantly. The moon is casting a shadow somewhere out there all the time, except when it’s hiding behind our planet.

Seeing a full solar eclipse is spectacular, and the nation responded to the opportunity from coast to coast and even in the ocean. I heard of a cruise ship destined for the zone of totality offshore that was booked weeks in advance. Thousands drove to locations hundreds of miles away where they were assured of a view of the sun being totally blacked out for 2 minutes or more. Well, assuming the weather cooperated by providing a clear sky.

I wanted to know what animals would do, so I invited a dozen friends to join us in a field for a pre-eclipse picnic and a guaranteed 1 minute and 57 seconds of no sun. We made no assurances about the weather, other than promising high temperatures and humidity, except for the 10-degree drop during totality. The capricious nature of clouds was understandably out of our control.

To observe behavior of different species, I asked people to tune in to selected animal groups. An ornithologist was to watch and listen to what nearby birds did. Another individual was to pay attention to calling insects, especially nocturnal tree crickets and katydids. Lots of dragonflies were flying around in the field, so some guests were asked to see if they stopped flying and perched on vegetation. I elected to watch our two beehives to see what the bees did. As for the flora, I didn’t need to be an ecologist to know a 2-minute eclipse would be inconsequential to plants, so no one was put in charge of the grass, shrubs or trees.

To have a record of the eclipse itself, we invited a first-rate photographer with a camera as long as my arm to capture the full solar eclipse, including corona and solar flares. Everyone took pictures of others in the group as they leaned back in lawn chairs and stared with funky-looking glasses at the sun. Fortunately, we had blue sky for half an hour before and after the eclipse. I later talked with Scott Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, to see how zoo animals responded to the total eclipse.

Observations in our field were interesting but not breathtaking. Four doves flew up into a tree, which is not particularly instructive as they fly into trees on a regular basis every day. The person in charge of dragonflies became distracted by the celestial events underway and forgot to see what they or any other insects did. One unequivocal change in animal behavior just before total eclipse was that honeybees returned to the hives in droves. They were out again minutes later as light returned.

At the zoo, observations were equally underwhelming. The giant tortoises that were placidly eating grass continued to do so during total darkness and afterward. Alligators and aquatic turtles did not move from where they basked or floated. The main behavioral observation was that the flock of flamingos at the zoo began running wildly – not because of a 2-minute period of darkness but because they were terrified when the 10,000 visitors at the zoo gave a loud cheer when the sun disappeared. Not an unreasonable response for any being.

My conclusion as an ecologist about animal responses to a total eclipse is that the species most responsive and dramatically affected is one of the primates: humans, the only animal to be aware of an eclipse in advance.

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