Conservation Corner

The August 2017 total solar eclipse created a 360 degree “sunset” at the iconic McBain Burr Oak tree near Columbia, Missouri.
photo by Dan Zarlenga

Four Minutes of Night

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

An immense, cir-cular shadow moves over the land, blocking out the sun and reveal-ing the brightest stars. It creates a 360 degree sunset, and in its wake, a path of night.

We all have the chance to witness an amazing natural sight next month, on April 8. Missouri will fall in the path of the second total solar eclipse within a decade. It’s incredibly unusual to have two such occur-rences within the same area in so short a span of years.

A solar eclipse h appens when the moon passes between us and sun during its monthly orbit around the Earth. To actu-ally witness the eclipse, we must be at that point on Earth where the moon casts its shadow as it blocks out the sun. While that may sound straight for-ward, the intricacies of celestial geometry and orbital mechanics tend to make the event a very rare happening for any particular spot on the planet.

It just so happens that Southeast Missouri will be in the right spot on Monday, April 8. Totality, the period when the moon completely blocks out the sun, will begin at 1:53 p.m. along the Arkansas border near the town of Thayer, Mo. The moon’s shadow will exit the state at 2:02 p.m. as it moves eastward over Ste. Genevieve. Locations in the center of this path will experience as much as four minutes of darkness.
The event will draw thousands of people with eclipse viewing glasses in hand (never view the sun unless wearing the proper protection!). But what about the rest of nature? Humans have the advantage of knowing exactly what is happening. We can even predict it. How does a solar eclipse impact creatures that don’t have that benefit? What will they do during these four minutes of night in the middle of the day?

Many forms of wildlife respond just as they would during an actual sunset or nightfall. Disoriented by this false night, nocturnal animals like opossums, bats, and owls may appear from their daytime resting spots. Crickets, whip-poor-wills, and frogs have been known to begin per-forming their evening choruses of chirps and songs. As spring will just be beginning in early April, we could hear a brief, but rich symphony of birds and amphibians!

During the total solar eclipse of August 1932 that impacted several New England states, one wit-ness observed that as totality reached its peak “the air was full of bees — a great roar of wings ensued and the entrances to the hives were blocked with bees trying to get in.” Researchers concluded that the insects were responding instinctively to rapid changes in light, temperature, and humidity.
Also, by instinct, domestic farm animals like cows have been known to return to their barns as totality begins, only to come right back out again minutes later when the ending of the eclipse mim-ics dawn.
But perhaps the most fascinating reactions come from more intelligent animals like primates, whose responses go beyond pure instinct.

During a 1984 solar eclipse, researchers in Georgia observed chimpanzees in an outdoor com-pound at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The primates exhibited confusion which suggested they were aware of the uniqueness of the experience. As the light dimmed, the chimps climbed upward with their faces and bodies toward the sun. One of the younger animals was seen standing upright and even gesturing at the sun. The chimps climbed down again as the daylight returned. Apparently, they too were awed by this encounter with darkness.

Take advantage of the fact that this remarkable phenomenon will occur so close in our home state. On April 8, witness one of nature’s most dramatic spectacles. And while doing so, take a moment to observe the natural world around you. How will it respond during four minutes of night?