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The Eclipse through the eyes of citizen scientists

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Photograph taken during the middle of the day during the eclipse at Verdon State Recreation Area (SRA) in Richardson County. Kurrus, Aug. 15, 2017. Copyright NEBRASKAland Magazine, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Photograph taken during the middle of the day during the eclipse at Verdon State Recreation Area (SRA). Copyright NEBRASKAland Magazine.

Jeff Kurrus

One year ago, for just a couple of minutes, the sky darkened in the middle of the day.

The air cooled, stars and planets appeared, and the sun seemed to transform before our eyes. The 2017 solar eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But as fascinating as it was, not everyone had their eyes trained on the skies the whole time.

There was a question that needed answering: how would animals and plants react to the eclipse?

Life Responds

That was the premise behind a citizen science project started on iNaturalist.org entitled “Life Responds.” Nearly 650 people across the United States logged on to record their observations of what happened in nature before, during and after the eclipse.

New Observations

One of them was Nebraska Game and Parks Commission naturalist Holly Green, who coordinated efforts for park visitors in central Nebraska to make their own observations. As she gathered and submitted data, Green got a unique glimpse into how the eclipse affected wildlife in Nebraska. Several observations stood out to her:

  •  Unusual cicada activity.

“They started being active as it got darker and darker, and the birds were chasing them out of the trees trying to eat them,” Green said. “The cicadas were deafening. And then when totality happened, it was silence. It was just eerie.”

  •  Confused bats.

After totality, an onlooker observed a bat clinging to a door in the women’s restroom at Mormon Island State Recreation Area.

“It had its eyes closed tightly, and was hanging on in a stretched out, vertical position,” the observer wrote. It is unusual to see bats during the day. It is assumed that the bat began foraging when it perceived dusk, but when the sun rapidly returned, the bat was forced to quickly find a place to roost.  Usually, they would roost in a tree or crevice out of sight and hang upside down in a compact position.

Anticipated Behavior

Green spent a month reading through all 2,000-some observations on the iNaturalist project, making her own notes and finding connections. Much of what was observed was already expected behavior, she said:

  • nocturnal animals awakening
  • temperatures dropping
  • flowers closing up
  • farm animals returning to bedding areas
  • domestic animals showing signs of stress

New Trends Discovered

However, Green said, observers also discovered new information and unexpected behaviors and trends. Among them were:

Some animals, such as prairie dogs, retreated to their homes during the eclipse and refused to emerge for some time afterward, a behavior Green termed “skepticism.” “Skepticism in animals, from what I had read, was not something we had really paid attention to,” she said; previously, the focus was always on animal behavior during the eclipse, and not afterward. Some owners reported that domestic animals, such as dogs, started nightly feeding behaviors, bringing their bowls to their owners – something that hadn’t been noted previously.

Owners often commented that their animals behaved the way they did before a storm – for example, cows going back to the barn.

As is natural for a citizen science project, the conditions for data collecting weren’t perfectly controlled, and most of the observers weren’t trained scientists and lacked thorough knowledge of the species they were observing. Not to mention, they were likely running on the adrenaline of seeing the eclipse, and that could have affected data too, Green said.

Nevertheless, thanks to the iNaturalist project, we now have confirmations of what were previously just generalizations, Green said, complete with audio, video, and photographic proof. “A lot of it was confirming or rejecting things we already knew, but didn’t have the ability to prove,” she said.

It couldn’t have happened without citizen science, Green said. There was no way for scientists to be present at every point along the 13-state stretch of totality. But they didn’t need to be. As it turns out, you don’t have to be a scientist to produce data that matters – just someone willing to observe.  ■

About renae blum

Renae works for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and has written for NEBRASKAland Magazine and the Lincoln Journal Star.

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