Observing Wildlife Reactions during a Total Solar Eclipse

by Todd Thompson

For the June, 2001 solar eclipse, I was with a large tour group in Zambia that had staked out a clearing north of Lusaka to view the event. The conditions were perfect: Warm weather and cloudless skies, although with a marked temperature drop as totality neared. During the event, several of us noticed apparent anomalies with birds and insects. Specifically, the birds seemingly all went back to roost just as totality neared. Nocturnal insects, such as crickets and cicadas, began their night calls at about that time and then ceased shortly after the sun reemerged. Mosquitoes came out to bite and then vanished. It was a fascinating, if brief, display of nature responding to the unexpected.

This all got me wondering how other species of wildlife, and particularly mammals, react to total solar eclipses. The literature on point is surprisingly sparse. Perhaps that is understandable, as people traveling to see total eclipses tend to pay more attention to the sun than to insects and wildlife.

However, in a contribution to Astronomy and Geophysics, Dr. Paul Murdin, OBE, currently Visiting Professor of Astronomy at Liverpool John Moores University's Astronomy Research Institute, published findings from field observations made by about 250 members of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) at the Mana Pools National Park during the 2001 eclipse. WEZ applied scientific methods to the task, such as control observations prior and subsequent to the eclipse. According to Dr. Murdin, WEZ found significant anomalies in wildlife behavior. Some of his observations were as follows:

The hippos paused, and looked nervous. Their daily routine had been disrupted. They were evidently not sure whether night had fallen and it was time for breakfast or whether the sun had re-risen and it was time to go to bed. They remained in the river - eyes and ears alert above the surface.

At the return of the light from the Sun there was a crescendo of loud dawn-chorus-like calls of the many turtle-doves that live in Mana Pools. Other birds joined it - the iridescent blue starlings, bulbuls, weaver birds... Bird calls had ceased during the period of the darkest part of the eclipse. By contrast frogs in the river called at totality and ceased calling when the light reappeared.

Mana Pools is home to many species of geese and water birds such as egrets and herons. The roosts were downstream from my observing site. The birds usually flew upstream in the morning to feeding grounds, returning to roost at sunset. During the eclipse, several flights of birds were seen returning back towards their roosts. One flight flew down stream during totality and was seen performing a U-turn back towards their feeding grounds after the diamond ring effect proved that daylight was not yet over.

Dr. Murdin’s observations confirm the validity of various anecdotal accounts made and heard over the years by eclipse chasers. However, it does not appear that any eclipse or wildlife group has undertaken to conduct and document similar observations during subsequent eclipses.

With this in mind, in November, 2011—one year before the November 14, 2012 eclipse—I made a trip to Far North Queensland to survey possible eclipse viewing sites that might also offer a chance to observe wildlife reactions. The task was complicated by the fact that the sun will be very low in the sky during the eclipse, just 14 degrees above the horizon at totality. Thus, costal locales promise to have the best and most dramatic views, clouds permitting.

However, most areas where mammals are reliably present, and most zoos and animal parks in the area are located well inland and generally have high tree lines, obstructing or obscuring views of the sun at eclipse time.

Moreover, the eclipse comes very early in the day—just after sunrise—which means that a red-eye bus ride, nocturnal hiking, or an overnight campout would be required to reach most of the sites in time for the event.

Thus, the winner of the site survey expedition was the Cairns Wildlife Dome, a private zoo exhibit near the waterfront in central Cairns, atop the Pullman Reef Hotel & Casino. The Dome has several advantages over alternative sites.

  • First, the Dome is home to a wide variety of mammals, reptiles and bird species, such as koalas, rainforest wallabies, frogs, turtles, freshwater crocodiles, bettongs, kookaburras, parrots, cockatoos, lorikeets, curlews, frogmouths, doves, and rosellas, all in a compact area; and they are already well accustomed to being observed by humans.
  • Second, the Dome is an enclosed “all weather” facility. It will serve as a nice refuge and consolation in the event of clouds and rain.
  • Third, the Dome is accessible—in the heart of the Cairns Central Business District, and immediately adjacent to ample hotel accommodations and tourism attractions. Participants can easily walk from their hotels to the site just before sunrise.
  • Fourth, the Wildlife Dome facility has a large, elevated terrace adjacent to the Dome itself, offering a postcard view of where the sun will be on eclipse morning, including the Trinity Inlet and Grafton headlands in the foreground.
  • Fifth, the skies above the Dome area tend to be something of a gathering point for colorful local parrots and ominous-looking bats around sunset. If the parrots and bats treat the eclipse as the culmination of a very short day, then they should be seen in the area as an added bonus.
  • Accordingly, in conjunction with Public Radio Guam (the closest NPR affiliate to Cairns) we are organizing a solar eclipse tour that will have exclusive access to the Cairns Wildlife Dome on eclipse morning. We intend to set up a battery of video cameras in the Dome facility in an attempt to observe and document wildlife behavior during phases of the eclipse.

    The Wildlife Dome staff will assist with benchmarking normal wildlife behavior at eclipse time, prior to the event, in order to establish a control observation as a basis for comparison. If all goes well, we should have a nice database of videos and field notes from which to draw some insights on wildlife behavior during total eclipses.

    Those interested in the Eclipse at the Dome should visit the tour website at www.latitude13adventures.com or refer inquiries to info@latitude13adventures.com.

    Todd Thompson is an eclipse chaser living and working on the island of Guam in the Western Pacific. He is also the proprietor of Latitude 13 Adventures, LLC, which is sponsoring the Eclipse at the Dome tour in conjunction with Public Radio Guam, to which a portion of the proceeds will be donated.

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