Birds, chimps, your dog: Total solar eclipses prompt some unusual behaviors

How will your pet react to the total eclipse?

Little scientific study has been devoted to how animals behave during a total eclipse.
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Little scientific study has been devoted to how animals behave during a total eclipse.

As soon as the moon blackened the face of the sun in a total solar eclipse, the hens crowded together. Gulls stopped flying, Sparrows and crows turned silent while horses and cattle sniffed the air. Bees began to buzz.

OK, this is anecdotal, not tested science.

But these animal behaviors — recorded by scientists during a total solar eclipse in 1999 and published in 2004 in the Turkish Journal of Veterinary Medicine & Animal Sciences — might give people some glimmer of what to expect when a total solar eclipse sweeps across the United States on Monday.

Scientifically, far more is known about solar eclipses themselves than how animals react during the phenomenon.

“There isn’t much” known, said Elliot Tramer, a professor of biology and director of environmental sciences at the University of Toledo in Ohio. “How often does a scientists who is studying animal behavior find himself or herself in the eclipse zone or has the free time or money to go there?”

In February 1998, Tramer was in Venezuela for a total solar eclipse and, by happenstance, witnessed the unusual and collective behavior of sea birds such as gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds.

“As the eclipse approached and it began to get a dusk-like lighting, the sun was probably 70 to 80 percent occluded, these birds all got up and flew inland,” Tramer said, an observation that he later published. “The local people in Spanish were all saying, ‘The birds think it’s evening!’ 

Once the eclipse passed, the birds flew back to sea.

Atypical behaviors of others animals have made their way into scientific papers:

▪ Forty-five horses, five captive does, three dogs, swallows and pigeons.

Observers looked at these animals on a farm in Kelebija, Serbia, during a total solar eclipse on Aug. 11, 1999. “An hour before the totality,” read the paper published in the Turkish journal in 2004, “horses started showing first signs of nervousness.” They became agitated, started sweating and even pawed the ground.

Then the horses calmed. Some lay down when the sun was covered by the moon.

Dogs? They retreated into their doghouses. A rooster crowed 10 minutes before the sun went black and, when it was totally covered, the hens turned silent. Does stayed quiet, too, but pigeons turned “aggressive.”

▪ Orb-weaving spiders: A paper published in 1994, based on observations during a total solar eclipse on July 11, 1991, noted that spiders acted normally up until the moment of totality, when the moon completely obscured the face of the sun. Spiders began to take down their webs. When the sun came out, they put them up again.

▪ Chimpanzees: A group was observed at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, starting two days before an annular eclipse in 1984, rather than a total solar eclipse. In an annular eclipse, the moon does not totally block the sun, leaving a “ring of fire” around the moon.

“When the sky began to darken and the temperature began to decrease,” read the paper published in 1986 in the American Journal of Primatology, “solitary females and females with infants moved to the top of the climbing structure. As the eclipse progressed, additional chimpanzees began to congregate on the climbing structure and to orient their bodies in the direction of the sun and the moon.”

At the time of maximum eclipse, the chimps began “to turn their faces upwards.” One juvenile stood and pointed at the moon and sun.

When it was over, they all climbed down again.

▪ Blue bulls, also known as nigali, from Asia: Males and females were observed in a zoo in Alipor, India, starting one day before and ending one day after a partial solar eclipse, not a total solar eclipse, on July 22, 2009. During the eclipse, both sexes ate less. The males, however, lay down longer and the females stood and walked around more, according to a 2013 paper in Ethology Ecology & Evolution.

▪ Hippos: Lying on a sandbar in the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, hippos lumbered into the water during a total eclipse in June 2001, just as they typically do when night approaches, and headed for the far bank. The sun returned before the animals had crossed the water. Observers noted the hippos seemed apprehensive and confused for the rest of the day.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

You can help science

Wanting to learn more about animal behaviors during a total eclipse, the California Academy of Sciences is asking the public to record what they see as part of its project called Life Responds. People can take part by downloading the academy’s free iNaturalist app and following directions, which includes making at least three observations — one a half hour before totality, another during totality and a third after totality.