WASHINGTON – When millions of people look up to the sky on April 8 to witness the total solar eclipse, scientists will be studying how the phenomenon will affect plant and animal activity on Earth.

The eclipse may only last a few minutes for those in the path of totality, but the effect it will have on the natural world will be profound, researchers told ABC News.

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Plants and animals will begin to react before totality as the light begins to diminish, said Angela Speck, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“When it gets to about 75%, 80% of the eclipse, there won’t be enough sunlight for the animals to start reacting,” she said.

About 20 minutes from totality, the birds will begin to flock. Some will calm down. Farm animals such as cows and chickens return to the barn because they think it is nighttime, as previous research has shown.

Then, when totality arrives, behavior will start to change again, Speck said.

Previous research has shown that bees stop buzzing during totality and return to their hives. Then, when sunlight reappeared, the bees appeared disoriented, according to a paper published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America after the 2017 eclipse.

A colony of bees is seen in a hive in University of Maryland bee researcher Nathalie Steinhauer's backyard, Wednesday, June 21, 2023, in College Park, Maryland.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

“This transition is probably something they didn't expect, and I think it could be a confusing time,” Brent Pease, assistant professor at the School of Forestry and Horticulture at Southern Illinois University, told ABC News. “It’s difficult to say exactly what these individuals or animals are experiencing.”

A study conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia during the 2017 eclipse found that some plants closed during totality and others followed the Sun as the Moon moved over them.

Based on reports dating back to the 1500s, researchers can expect breeding birds to calm down during the eclipse, Pease said. This is likely a defense mechanism, to avoid detection by predators during periods of darkness, he added.

The factor behind most of these effects is a large change in light stimuli, Pease said.

Birds think it's “bedtime,” Speck said.

Nocturnal crepuscular insects, such as crickets, will begin to vocalize as the light dissipates, Pease said. “Crickets respond very quickly to changes in light sources,” he said.

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There is also evidence that spiders will begin to engage in web maintenance – typically a nocturnal behavior for them to capture potential meals during the night, Pease explained.

An interesting case occurred with the Galápagos tortoise, a study published in 2020 found. The typically slow and lethargic species was observed to have the urge to mate during the 2017 eclipse, the researchers noted.

Although several studies have already been done, researchers will continue to study the impact of a total solar eclipse – especially considering how long it will be before the next solar eclipse occurs.

At Southern Illinois University, scientists will study insects and birds in the regions based on soundscapes created during the eclipse, Pease said.

The project, part of the NASA-funded Eclipse Soundscapes project, relies on citizen science reporting for the breadth of its data, with more than 200 participants in 64 Midwest counties, Pease said.

“We are increasing scientific engagement around this really exciting event and really increasing scientific accessibility,” Pease said.

It will be another 350 years before a total solar eclipse passes over southern Illinois, Pease said, emphasizing the importance of the research that will take place on April 8.

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What's not clear is what happens to nocturnal animals when the eclipse occurs, Speck said. There are several bat caves in the San Antonio region that will be examined, Speck said.

For this eclipse, there will be several accredited zoos in the path of totality, allowing researchers to observe animal behavior more closely, Speck noted.

Those in the path of totality can also expect the temperature to drop significantly, Speck said. Depending on humidity, temperatures can drop by up to 10 degrees in the minutes when the sun is completely covered in regions that experience dry conditions.

“There are a lot of experiments just to understand how the atmosphere changes as we turn off the Sun,” Speck said.

Amphibians often react quickly to changes in light that cause changes in temperature — even “micro” changes in temperature, Pease said.

Researchers expect the vast majority of impacts to be temporary, lasting just a few minutes.

“We have hundreds of years of information about what might be happening to wild communities,” Pease said. “But the interesting thing here is that all these hundreds of years of information are only qualitative. We are now at a point where we have the conservation technology and computing power to quantitatively assess very precisely how things are changing and how those changes may dissipate with distance from the path of totality.”

You can check out more eclipse coverage here.

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