During next month’s eclipse, these scientists won’t be looking up

Despite studying the sun for over two decades, solar astrophysicist Trae Winter didn’t experience his first total solar eclipse until 2017. Among the Nebraska cornfields, Winter and his colleagues stood in awe as the skies darkened and the world quieted. Then, they were brought back to earth when the hoots of an owl pierced the silence.

They realized that what was unfolding above was influencing the sounds around them.

“So that was, for us, very powerful,” said Winter, co-founder of a Massachusetts-based science and education lab. “That just really solidified our belief that this was something that we really wanted to do, … to put some scientific methodology on what people have been talking about and experiencing for years.”

Since then, Winter and his team have been preparing to monitor the acoustic behavior of wildlife when the next total solar eclipse sweeps over North America on April 8. While looking up, they will also keep an ear to the ground, listening as the chirping of crickets crescendos and the mooing of cows hushes.

In 2017, scientists at a South Carolina zoo reported that three-fourths of the observed mammal, bird and reptile species reacted to the eclipse. Most engaged in nighttime behavior and some expressed anxiety. This year, many scientists are again preparing to study animal behavior during the abrupt changes in light conditions. Because total solar eclipses are rare — after April 8, the next one to touch the contiguous United States will be in 2044 — they offer scientists a limited window.

Winter’s ARISA Lab is teaming up with citizens, state agencies and libraries along the path of totality to record the acoustic activity of animals and insects when the moon completely covers the sun.

The NASA-funded project also aims to increase the scientific participation of everyday citizens and people with vision loss. Ahead of April’s big event, the researchers have distributed hundreds of acoustic monitoring devices to collaborators across 15 states, including Illinois.

“They can’t do all the research or all the data collection, they can only put it all together,” said Theresa Madel, a Murphysboro resident who has previously participated in nature studies and is one of the citizen scientists who will help the researchers by installing audio recorders downstate. “So, to be part of something that’s bigger than me and be able to contribute to that has just been very exciting.”

She is working with Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is one of the few spots in the United States that was in the path of totality, or moon’s shadow, in 2017 and will be again in 2024. The university will play a crucial role in collecting data for the project, called Eclipse Soundscapes. Carbondale will be in totality for over 4 minutes.

Brent Pease, an assistant professor of forestry at SIU whose Sounds of Nature lab studies biodiversity through sound, has contributed over 100 sound recorders and helped enlist hundreds of local volunteers such as Madel.

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