Birds suddenly stop singing, insects return to their nests, and creatures of the night sound off in the middle of the day. It’s easy to see why solar eclipses once elicited premonitions of doom. But scientists believe there is more than superstition to these changes in animal behavior, and with the August 21, 2017 eclipse, researchers hope to study exactly how and why they occur. That’s why Eclipse Soundscapes has partnered with the National Park Service, Brigham Young University, Idaho, and citizen scientists across the country to record audio data as the eclipse progresses.
Using high-quality recording equipment, including binaural microphone arrays which simulate human hearing, Eclipse Soundscapes will capture audio in a variety of biologically diverse environments, including 15 national parks in the path of totality and two more that will experience a partial eclipse. Audio samples will be taken the day before, the day after, and the day of the eclipse in order to understand how soundscapes fluctuate as the moon blocks out the sun’s light and heat.
“It is clear that animals do respond to the eclipse,” Dr. Kurt Fristrup of the National Park Service said in a press release. “The question is going to be: how much of that response is detectable acoustically? We could see dramatic changes. Past research has studied individual sites during an eclipse, and minor papers have been published, but no one has looked at this phenomenon on a continental scale.”
It is difficult to know exactly what to expect, since most reports of animal sound during an eclipse are purely anecdotal. The last scientific study on the topic was completed by the Eclipse Behavior Committee of the Boston Society for Natural History 85 years ago, surrounding the August 1932 eclipse in Maine, New Hampshire, and Northeastern Massachusetts. In the study, the committee asked citizen scientists to report observations on animal behavior in their location.
The response was overwhelming. Observers reported that birds stopped singing, ants busily carrying cargo stopped and remained motionless, bees returned to their hives, and fish surfaced, while crickets and frogs erupted in a chorus. When the sun re-emerged, birds began a dawn chorus.
In general, it appeared that with the darkening of the sun, diurnal animals settled into their dusk routines, while nocturnal animals stirred to action.
Of course, it is impossible to make generalizations about an entire species based on the actions of individuals in an isolated area, but some of the species — such as the crickets and frogs, responded to the eclipse in unison, producing a much more measurable response. It is possible that these creatures respond more to an eclipse because their behaviors are dictated by light, as opposed to the circadian rhythms which produce sleep/wake cycles in creatures like humans.
That’s not to say “higher” mammals are unaffected by an eclipse. A report of a 1984 solar eclipse by the American Journal of Primatology reported that chimps at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center congregated on their climbing structure and oriented themselves in the direction of the eclipse. One juvenile chimp reportedly stood upright and gestured in the direction of the eclipse.
Humans respond to eclipses with comparable excitement (just do a quick social media search for #Eclipse2017 to see how much buzz the August 21 eclipse has generated). For this reason, Eclipse Soundscapes is not limiting audio recording to wildlife areas. Urban areas, where human reactions to the eclipse can be studied, are of particular interest to sociologists and anthropologists. In that regard, the eclipse is a perfect chance for humans to study ourselves, and where we fit into our ecosystem and the greater universe.
All recordings from partners and citizens scientists will be collected and hosted in a database on EclipseSoundscapes.org. This database will be free and open source so that researchers, educators, artists, anyone else who is interested can access and listen to these soundscapes.
If you are interested in recording and submitting a soundscape as a citizen scientist, please see our Citizen Science Page.