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TN Aquarium: Animals could greet August 21st eclipse with bellows, grunts or silence

This is what the lemurs' "sun worshipping" looks like in action. (Image: Tennessee Aquarium)

A lot of people are excited about the coming August 21st eclipse, and the Tennessee Aquarium says it's a good spot to take it all in - particularly for those who are interested in how animals will react.

Since the opening of the Lemur Forest exhibit earlier this year, the Tennessee Aquarium’s Ring-tailed and Red-ruffed Lemurs have demonstrated time and again that they’re keenly aware of what’s going on above them, says Tennessee Aquarium spokesperson Casey Phillips.

When they spy a plane or hawk passing overhead, these intelligent mammals will sound a thunderous warning call alerting to the presence of a potential predator. Ring-tails, in particular, also are well-known for adopting a yoga-like posture to bask in pools of sunlight, an act known as “sun worshipping.”

The aquarium's lemur experts say they aren't sure how these sky-watching, light-loving animals will react during the two minutes of darkness come August 21, when the Southeast experiences its first total solar eclipse in nearly a century.

“I think it will depend how dark it gets and for how long,” says Animal Care Specialist Chelsea Feast. “I anticipate that they will stop what they are doing to look towards the sky and will recognize the change in light.

“They are very in tune with the light cycle since this controls their breeding season by indicating the time of year. During the eclipse, they may sit quietly and just watch the sky, or they may react with vocalizations. They may even move towards their transfer doors thinking they should head into their behind the scenes area to go to sleep.”

At a minimum, Feast predicts the eclipse will cause the Ring-tails to look up and grunt, a vocalization that indicates their curiosity. During the eclipse, the disappearance of the sun could result in strange behavior worth paying attention to in the world around you, especially at the Aquarium.

From grunting lemurs to quieter birds, Aquarium staff predictions and research from past eclipses suggest many of the reactions guests might observe on August 21 could be heard rather than seen.

Visitors interested in witnessing these responses should head to the Tropical Cove, Appalachian Cove Forest and Mississippi Delta Country. The Aquarium’s three Living Forest galleries feature abundant natural light flowing through both buildings’ distinctive glass peaks. Due to this setting, animals in these spaces are most likely to react to the sun’s temporary disappearance.

Animal Care Specialist Jennifer Wawra says the turtle species in Delta Country may not noticeably respond to the eclipse, but the American Alligators there could react to the sudden darkening by bellowing, much as they do during thunderstorms.

In the Appalachian Cove Forest, the native songbirds that fly freely through the gallery are likely to become much quieter during the eclipse. Anecdotal reports and numerous videos available online from eclipses around the world show birds reacting to the sun’s disappearance by dramatically reducing their singing. During a total solar eclipse in Japan on July 22, 2009, researchers found that the calling of birds dropped from 16.4 “songs” per minute to absolute silence during the eclipse’s period of totality.

Because of the rarity of total solar eclipses, research into how they impact animal behavior is limited. At the Aquarium, staff members plan to set up video cameras that will record the lemurs’ reaction to the sun’s disappearance, and guests can engage in a bit of citizen science of their own by monitoring the animals’ responses first-hand.

Chattanooga lies just south of the eclipse’s path of totality, the region where the sun will be completely obscured. With the proper protective viewing equipment, however, visitors to the Aquarium will be able to marvel as 99 percent of the sun’s light is blocked for more than two minutes. Locally, the eclipse will begin at 1:02 p.m. with 99.55 percent of the light being obscured at 2:32 p.m. According to NASA records, the last time any part of the Southeast was in the path of a total solar eclipse was June 1918.

Visitors to the Aquarium on Aug. 21 are invited to watch NASA’s Eclipse 2017 “megacast” in the auditorium of the River Journey building. This live streamed event, which will be viewable from noon to 3 p.m., will feature images captured before, during and after the eclipse by three NASA aircraft, more than 50 high-altitude balloons as well astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

Despite the apparent lack of sunlight, looking directly at the sun during an eclipse can damage your eyesight. Those interested in watching this astronomical rarity can purchase special eclipse glasses in the Aquarium’s gift shops while supplies last. These frames have been approved for solar eclipse viewing thanks to special lenses that reduce the amount of light being transmitted to safe levels.

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