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Experience wildlife in shadow of today's total solar eclipse

Get ready for a celestial showdown! On April 8th, a total solar eclipse is set to cast a dramatic shadow on the natural world.

As the moon blocks the sun, plunging parts of North America into midday darkness, scientists are scrambling to understand how birds, bats, and insects – creatures exquisitely tuned to light levels – will react to this unexpected blackout.

For instance, birds migrating north for the spring, their internal clocks set to navigate by daylight, may suddenly find themselves confused. Will they mistake the eclipse for nightfall and seek a place to roost? Will insects stop their buzzing?

This is not just idle speculation – it’s science in the making, offering insights into how animals perceive and respond to changes in light.

What is a total solar eclipse?

When the moon glides between the Earth and the sun, a solar eclipse unfolds. This event casts the moon’s shadow across the Earth, dimming the sun’s light completely or in part over certain regions. The usual daylight fades into a unique twilight, creating moments of wonder that last briefly.

This phenomenon is not just a rare spectacle; it’s a journey into the shadows that only a select portion of the Earth’s surface, known as the “path of totality,” gets to experience firsthand.

During this upcoming eclipse, the path of totality carves a route starting in Mexico, slicing through the heart of Texas, and continuing its arc northeastward to Maine.

Those situated within this narrow corridor are the fortunate audience to a dramatic display of nature’s grandeur, where day briefly transforms into night, unveiling stars and planets against a darkened sky. The sun’s corona – a fiery halo – becomes visible in a mesmerizing celestial show.

Bird navigation during total solar eclipse

Birds, with their unparalleled mastery of long-distance migration, have long fascinated scientists and nature enthusiasts alike. They possess an extraordinary array of navigational tools, a testament to nature’s ingenuity.

From the ancient art of celestial navigation – using the sun by day and stars by night to sense the Earth’s magnetic field – birds have developed a sophisticated understanding of the world around them to guide their epic journeys across continents.

However, there’s a compelling twist in their story. These avian travelers surprisingly undertake their lengthy migrations predominantly under the cloak of night.

This nocturnal strategy raises intriguing questions about how sudden environmental changes, such as the abrupt darkness of a total solar eclipse, might affect their intricate navigation systems.

Will the sudden darkness disorient them, or will they adapt seamlessly? The answers hold clues to their navigational abilities and the adaptability of wildlife amidst change.

The 2017 eclipse

This isn’t the first time researchers have studied the effects of a solar eclipse on wildlife. During the total eclipse of 2017, Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientists used weather radar to track how animals reacted. The results were intriguing.

“During the 2017 eclipse, we saw a decrease in flying insects, flying birds – but we didn’t see anything like the typical pattern of movement when it gets dark at night,” said Andrew Farnsworth, senior researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Normally, as the sun sets, there’s a flurry of activity – insects and bats emerge, birds seek out places to rest. During the 2017 eclipse, this transition didn’t unfold in the same way. Birds didn’t completely go into nighttime mode, suggesting a level of confusion triggered by the unusual darkness.

The grand experiment on April 8th 2024

The April 8th eclipse presents a unique follow-up opportunity, with key differences that might illuminate new behavioral details. Here’s what makes this one special:

Spring migration

Unlike the 2017 eclipse, which happened in August during fall migration, this one hits during peak northward spring migration. With birds intensely motivated to reach their breeding grounds, any dramatic behavioral changes might be easier to detect.

Longer totality

This time, the period of totality – when the sun is fully blocked – will last longer, giving scientists more time to collect data.

Tech advances

BirdCast, a tool allowing people to track nightly migration right down to their county, has been launched since the 2017 eclipse. Combining radar data with tools like this will provide richer details.

What the scientists hope to discover

The phenomenon of a solar eclipse offers a rare experimental condition on a grand scale, allowing researchers to observe and analyze how birds react to an abrupt interruption in daylight.

It’s here, in these moments of unexpected nightfall, that scientists see a unique opportunity for discovery. Such questions are at the heart of ongoing scientific investigations.

Researchers eagerly anticipate these natural experiments, hoping to uncover deeper insights into avian cognition, sensory perception, and adaptability.

“By seeing how animals react to the total eclipse, we can get clues to how they perceive and use light under normal circumstances. Birds and insects might use cues from light differently, for example,” said Cecilia Nilsson, lead author of the 2017 study.

Join the total solar eclipse project

While scientists analyze complex radar data, you can become a citizen scientist.

Observe animal behavior in your own backyard during the eclipse. Do the birds seem confused? Do insects change their activity? Share your observations on platforms like eBird, where researchers access this valuable data.

Whether the results are wildly dramatic or reveal subtle changes, studying this eclipse is about more than just bird behavior.

It’s a reminder of the balance between the natural world and cosmic events – a powerful illustration of how a little change in light can create fascinating ripples of effect.


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