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Extraordinary Darkness: A Participatory Approach to Assessing Animal Behavior During Eclipses

We describe ongoing work to engage participatory scientists in two projects to collect data for the upcoming solar eclipse.

Published onMar 01, 2024
Extraordinary Darkness: A Participatory Approach to Assessing Animal Behavior During Eclipses


Building on earlier work demonstrating that animals exhibit behavioral responses to solar eclipses, we present an expansive participatory science approach to examine the impact of eclipses on animal behavior. Formal studies done by research collaborations in the past worked in closed environments and showed that solar eclipses influence specific species’ behaviors (with various reactions related to day/night or apparent anxiety-related behavior). This study has the potential to document behavior of diverse species in more diverse settings and can additionally provide data from different extents of eclipse maximum. This kind of effort will potentially provide data that are both more extensive than more focused prior studies. We are collecting this data through two partnered, ambitious projects: Eclipse Soundscapes and Solar Eclipse Safari. As already demonstrated by preliminary data gathered during the October 2023 annular eclipse, collecting animal behavior observations promises to yield new nuanced insights into the intricate connections between celestial events and animal behaviors. Preliminary work indicates our potential for data collection is realistic. Additional work will be done to link human experiences during these rare celestial events.

1. Introduction

Solar eclipses are exciting! They offer the opportunity to study the effects of a rare and dramatic phenomenon. Solar eclipses occur, on average, 2.38 times per year somewhere on the globe. Since most of these are partial, and each total eclipse is only visible from less than 1% of Earth (Espenak, 2023), experiencing a total solar eclipse is really rare. In any place on Earth, they happen, on average, only once every 375 years (Meeus, 1982). Moreover, people react strongly to eclipses and have been reporting observations of them for thousands of years (Humphreys & Waddington, 2017). We are interested not just in eclipses themself, but also in reactions to them. Specifically, our team is exploring how animals respond to eclipses. In addition, we are interested in how eclipses impact humans’ sense of awe and STEM engagement among the people collecting this data. For all these investigations, we are using an expansive participatory science approach.

1.1 Animal Behavior During Eclipses

Solar eclipses not only affect people, but they also impact non-human animals. Because sunlight (or lack thereof) provides cues for animals that affect their circadian clocks and behaviors, animals should respond when the Sun is blocked. One of the first comprehensive historical accounts of animal behavior during a solar eclipse was the total solar eclipse of New England in 1932 (Wheeler, 1935). Similar to our work, that study gathered accounts from not only “naturalists”, but also from the general public who submitted observations in response to notices about the study placed in newspapers – an example of participatory science nearly 100 years ago! From the almost 500 observations recorded during that eclipse, at the point of totality, both domesticated (e.g., cattle) and wild (e.g., birds) species were observed beginning their typical “nighttime” routines such as returning to their barns and roosts. Even though the totality of a solar eclipse is fleeting, lasting anywhere from 9 seconds to 7.5 minutes, there is evidence that animals react to them!

Others report that animals showed fear when totality begins during an eclipse: horses clustered together and shook their heads and tails, and wild birds stopped flying and remained silent and still (Özbey et al., 2004). Captive chimpanzees climbed up the highest structures in their enclosure and turned toward the sky during the totality of the 1984 eclipse (Branch and Gust, 1986). In contrast, a diverse range of animals observed during the 2001 eclipse in Zimbabwe including warthogs, crocodiles, zebras, and lions did not seem to respond at all (Murdin, 2001).

Observations of animals during eclipses were mostly anecdotal and/or otherwise limited in scope before the “Great American Solar Eclipse” of August 21, 2017. To start to fill in this gap, many researchers, including some members of our team, collected data during that eclipse. We began our study (Hartstone-Rose et al., 2020) on the behaviors of 17 species including mammals, birds, and reptiles at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina by collecting observations of the animals for two days before the eclipse to understand how those species behaved under those same seasonal conditions. Next, we used the same protocol to collect data on the same animals in the hours before, during, and after the eclipse until conditions and behaviors returned to normal. We grouped the behaviors we saw during the eclipse into four categories: normal (the animals didn’t do anything noticeably different), evening (the animals reacted as if it was dusk and night), apparent anxiety (the animals acted in ways that we generally interpret as upset), and novel (behaviors that just seemed different). Approximately 75% of the species observed showed a response to the eclipse, with the majority of animals engaging in their established evening behaviors. The next most frequent response was anxiety, followed by novel behaviors. Our study provided data on the behavioral impact of eclipses across a diverse group of animals.

Another pattern in solar eclipse research that continued during the 2017 eclipse was the use of data gathered by the public. One example was The Life Responds project, where 645 people submitted more than 2,795 observations of plant and animal responses during the eclipse (Young et al., 2019). In that study, the most commonly submitted data was on dogs, chickens, and humans. In many cases, no animal behavioral response was documented or the evidence submitted was inconclusive. The Life Responds project created the largest collection of observations of animals during the solar eclipse to date. Young et al. (2019)demonstrated how fruitful participatory science methods are for observing behavior around eclipses. Additionally, participatory science programs create formal and informal education opportunities in which the public can engage in real-world scientific studies (National Academies of Sciences & Medicine, 2018), while simultaneously allowing scientists to collect more data across geographic and temporal scales that would otherwise be unfeasible (Lottig et al., 2014; Poisson et al., 2020). For students, this can help develop a sense of belonging in the scientific community, improve academic achievement, and promote self-efficacy, motivation, metacognition, and competence for future careers in STEM fields (Hiller & Kitsantas, 2015; Smith et al., 2021).

1.2 Expanding this Work through Participatory Approaches

Our previous work on animal behavioral responses to solar eclipses relied on a team documenting the behavior of zoo taxa during the eclipse, and also  for several days leading up to the 2017 total solar eclipse, as well as for hours after it. These comparison observations put into context the behaviors of each individual animal during the eclipse (Hartstone-Rose et al., 2020). The current study focuses on expanding the number of observers through two separate but related participatory science projects: 1) using data collected by the Eclipse Soundscapes Observer survey in which participants are trained in protocols in advance and are then asked to submit their notes on their animal observations from before, during, and after the eclipse, via an online survey, and 2) through a survey distributed on our own Solar Eclipse Safari website and linked from various other sources including the SciStarter platform (see Methods below).

Our study of the 2017 eclipse (Hartstone-Rose et al., 2020) collected detailed data from observers who were trained to record animal behavior. They observed animal behavior many hours before, during, and after the eclipse, and noted subtle behavioral changes relating to percent totality. The current study uses broad participatory science approaches and has advantages related to increasing the number of observers. More observers will facilitate the following benefits:

1) Observation of animals in broader contexts – not just zoo animals, but also animals in nature, farms, and households. Observations in less populated places will give a better understanding of the relationship between animals’ reactions to the eclipse versus their reaction to the people surrounding them during the eclipse. (A limitation of our 2017 observations was that the zoo visitors were more numerous than usual – potentially influencing the behavior of some or all of the animals.)

2) Observations of multiple individuals or groups of individuals of specific species of animals – e.g., while we noted interesting behavior of baboons in the one zoo that we worked at in 2017, this was just one grouping. Observers at zoos along the path of the 2024 eclipse will be able to confirm whether other baboons behave the same way. Likewise, an abundance of data regarding common species like dogs (see preliminary results below) and squirrels will give a fuller picture of diversity of potential reactions to eclipses.

3) Observations of animals not only along the path of totality – There are little-known observations of animals outside the zone of totality. While we have a growing idea of which species seem to react to eclipses, we do not know the percent of totality that induces these reactions – and this will likely be different for different species.

Through participatory research, we have the potential to collect large sample sizes that will allow us to find exciting patterns in our data. For instance, it is likely that there is subtle individual variation in behavioral responses to eclipses within species. Our broad sample will allow us to quantify these reactions and correlations. Furthermore, the large sample sizes  we expect will allow us to assess whether there are significant differences between animal behavior observations submitted by observers who are children or adults. As part of our project assessment, we also plan to investigate how participating in this type of data collection may contribute to feelings of awe and/or STEM engagement.

In short, participatory methods will allow us to obtain a broad geographic spread of data about animal behaviors, while also making it possible to explore nuances that might not be observable in smaller data sets collected by traditional teams of trained professionals.

2. Methods

Our study will use three sets of observation data: data collected through the Eclipse Soundscapes Observer Role survey implemented during the October 14, 2023, annular eclipse and the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse, as well as data from the more intensive, repeated observation, Solar Eclipse Safari implemented the during the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse. These data will be combined for analyses of differences between observations of annular and total eclipses. Also, data from during the total eclipse from both surveys will be combined where the questions overlap to increase the sample sizes and the potential to detect subtle, but significant, effects.

To assess animal behavior before, during, and after the eclipse, both the Solar Eclipse Safari and the Eclipse Soundscapes Observer surveys include sections on the location of the observation and specific questions about the animals being observed. The location data to be gathered will include geographic coordinates and the time of observations in order to allow calculations of the percent totality. Again, to protect observers, location data will be protected (Lynn et al., 2019). For both projects, observers will also note the type of environment (zoo, park, farm, forest, etc.) in which they are observing animals as well as note the amount of human activity surrounding those observations. Below, please find detailed descriptions of the protocol for each complementary project.

2.1 Eclipse Soundscapes

The Eclipse Soundscapes project (ES), funded by NASA Science Activation, is a participatory science project under the NASA citizen science umbrella, studying how eclipses affect life on Earth. It does so by collecting both participant observations and sound data from the October 14, 2023 and April 8, 2024 eclipses. Alongside NASA subject matter experts, members of the general public are invited to contribute by learning about eclipses (Apprentice Role), collecting eclipse observations (ES Observer Role), collecting audio recordings during solar eclipses (ES Data Collector Role), and analyzing acoustic data to determine how disruptions in light and circadian rhythms affect ecosystems (ES Data Analyst Role). Importantly, all project roles are designed to be as accessible and inclusive as possible with explicit efforts at increasing accessibility for the blind and low-vision community — a group that has traditionally been left out of eclipse science and participatory science. Other aspects of the project have been considered and adjusted to improve accessibility along other axes with the aim of inclusivity for all participants. (See the “Accessibility and Inclusion” statement on

The Eclipse Soundscapes Observer survey contains questions about what nature sounds and/or sights participants experienced in the 10 minutes before the maximum phase of the eclipse, during the 3-4 minutes of the eclipse maximum, and in the 10 minutes after the eclipse maximum. Prior to completing the ES Observer survey, Participants are trained to take observation notes offline during these three different time periods and then submit these observations after the eclipse via an online survey. They are asked a series of yes/no questions about behavior changes seen or heard from insects, birds, amphibians, mammals (excluding humans), and humans during each of the three time periods. If yes is selected for any of these groups, participants are asked to contribute more specific open-ended written notes.

2.2 Solar Eclipse Safari

The Solar Eclipse Safari project will contain questions prompting observations of animal behavior as well as questions about the psychological effects of the eclipse and participating in a scientific study related to it. The survey has been approved by the Institutional Review Board, and all observers will assent to their participation. Although locations of observers during their observations (for assessment of percent totality of the observation) will be collected, these data will only be accessed after the day of the eclipse and specific localities of observations will not be made public.

In the Solar Eclipse Safari survey, animal behavior will be assessed via prompts for observers to identify the species that they are observing. Then, observers will be able to select options of the most common types of behaviors that those animals exhibit. There will also be opportunities for written notes beyond these simple options and an “other” option for recording behaviors observed beyond the pre-populated options.

After their first set of animal observations is completed, participants will continue their observation through the eclipse. The survey will prompt participants to observe the same animal, preferably for an hour preceding the eclipse (though less is fine), throughout totality and near totality, and then afterward until the animals return to normal. Between their first observation and 10 minutes before the beginning of the eclipse, participants will be prompted to record their observations every 5 minutes. Then they will be asked to record every two minutes and finally every minute during the time of totality. 10 minutes after the eclipse, they will resume observations at 5-minute intervals.

3. Preliminary Results

The Eclipse Soundscapes Observer survey was implemented during the annular solar eclipse that went through North America on October 14, 2023. From around the 200 respondents to that survey, there were 106 reports of animal observations. These included 4 identified different species of insects, ~40 species of birds, 3 types of amphibians, and 9 species of mammals – though more than 80% of people who observed mammal behavior during the annular eclipse, reported on dogs. No participants reported observing reptiles. Observers perceived that approximately 73% of the animals had some kind of reaction to the eclipse.

Although these results are preliminary and from an annular solar eclipse, 82% of the people who were watching birds during the annular eclipse perceived that they had some kind of reaction; several noted that they got quiet during the solar eclipse, and others stated that they flew into the trees or their nests during the eclipse. Likewise, 59% and 66% of the people that observed insects and mammals during the annular eclipse noted a reaction to it. As was observed by Young et al. (2019), domestic dogs were among the most common subjects in our study – 84% of all mammals observed. Using logistic regression, we saw that, while there was no correlation between the percent totality and perceived reaction for birds and insects, there was a statistically significant relationship for mammals: for the adults who observed mammals during the annular eclipse, the higher the percent of totality, the more likely they were to perceive a mammalian reaction (Wald = 3.915, p = .048, Odds Ratio: 1.159).

4. Discussion

While the preliminary results about animal behavior observed from the Eclipse Soundscapes Observer Survey during the October 2023 annular solar eclipse were an exciting demonstration of part of our protocol, they were clearly limited. Despite one statistically significant preliminary finding even with these small sample sizes, more data will allow us to make more informed conclusions about the reaction of more diverse species. We anticipate many hundreds (likely thousands) more responses to our study during the April 2024 total solar eclipse (see below) which will increase the taxonomic and geographic diversity of our sample. That is, while the majority of the observers that conducted animal observations during the 2023 annular solar eclipse appeared to fall into two categories (people who observed mostly birds in the wild or pets, especially dogs, in their yards), it seems that there are more people making plans for experiencing the 2024 total solar eclipse and we have had many more research inquiries leading up to it. Furthermore, during our observations of the 2017 solar eclipse (Hartstone-Rose et al., 2020), our trained observers noted most reactions to the solar eclipse at near totality, and thus, some of the patterns observed during the annular solar eclipse may have been anticipatory, and observers might make more objective observations if behaviors change more dramatically during a total solar eclipse.

More importantly, during the April 2024 total solar eclipse, observers will have multiple options for participating in data collection related to animal behavior, both through the Eclipse Soundscapes project as well as through the Solar Eclipse Safari. Combining these rich datasets across a broader sample will allow us to not only gather data on more diverse species in more diverse localities, but the larger sample size will allow us to assess more subtle effects. For example, there may be greater resolution of behavioral differences at different percentages of totality as well as subtle differences between, for instance, adult and child observers.

5. Future Work

Eclipses bring on strong emotional responses, including feelings of awe (Goldy et al., 2020). Awe is a complex emotion. Researchers propose that awe is the emotion most likely to prompt science learning, comfort with uncertainty, increased motivation to learn, and enhanced memory (Valdeso, 2017). In a study of almost three million Twitter users (Goldy et al., 2022), individuals in the path of the 2017 “Great American Solar Eclipse” expressed more language related to awe than did individuals outside of the pathway, suggesting that eclipses might prompt feelings of awe.

We believe that observing the solar eclipse while engaging in a participatory science project may foster other positive STEM outcomes like building feelings of belonging in STEM (Mulvey et al., 2022; Rainey et al., 2018) and greater interest and engagement with STEM (Condon & Wichowsky, 2018; Mitchell et al., 2017; Mulvey et al., 2023). While prior research on participatory science highlights that white and educated individuals are likely to participate in participatory science projects (Allf, et al., 2022), we expect that observing the solar eclipse may draw a more diverse pool of people because of outreach efforts that are publicizing opportunities around the total solar eclipse (Lin Hunter et al., 2023).

In addition to collecting data about non-human animals, we are excited to add a layer to our study by studying the affective effects of seeing an eclipse on observers who submit data. We will investigate how participation in both witnessing an eclipse and collecting data as part of this research contributes to affect changes.

In order to assess the affective effects of eclipses, participants will be asked to complete the Awe Experience Scale (Yaden et al., 2019), as well as brief assessments capturing STEM belonging (Mulvey et a., 2022) and identity (McDonald, 2019; Mulvey et al., 2021). These measures will enable us to document the benefits of participatory science projects for those who collect data. Additionally, we will explore whether the type of eclipse exposure (percent totality one observes), type of animal behavior observed, setting, age, and gender are related to perceptions of awe as well as changes in belonging, and identity.

Examining the subtle animal observation findings alongside the affective data may yield potentially powerful results. For instance, if we were to find a link between the extent of observed behavioral differences and feelings of awe, or a link between the depth of animal observation and feelings of affinity toward STEM disciplines, this would provide insight into the impact of eclipses on the human experience of the natural and celestial world and could inform best practices for designing participatory projects to achieve certain outcomes.

Acknowledgements and Ending with Our Plea

We are grateful to the organizers of this Special Issue who have given us this opportunity to share our preliminary results from the 2023 annular solar eclipse and our plans for the 2024 total solar eclipse. If you or anyone you know are interested in similar measures, we would love to combine our efforts and most especially we hope that you will disseminate information about our effort to anyone that you think might want to participate or facilitate groups of participants (e.g., libraries and school groups).

To participate in Solar Eclipse Safari, please visit this website: To participate in Eclipse Soundscapes, please visit this website:

The Solar Eclipse Safari Project is funded by the North Carolina State University Data Science Academy. The Eclipse Soundscape Project is funded by NASA Science Activation (award No. 80NSSC21M0008).

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