Margarita Woc Colburn’s childhood memories of a July 1991 total solar eclipse in Central America are of a social gathering for excited adult relatives who spent hours waiting for an event that was over in minutes.
But the future veterinarian’s gaze was drawn earthward.
“I was looking down on a valley in Guatemala, and I just remember the flock of birds, this massive thing going down to the trees getting ready for nesting, just like what you see at night,” Woc Colburn said, describing a short span when the moon completely obscured the sun. “Then, it felt like a new day. Birds came out and were singing.”
Today she is an associate veterinarian and researcher at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere — which is in the path of totality. During Monday’s total solar eclipse, Woc Colburn’s primary concern once again will be on the animals she has made her life’s work. She predicts birds are likely to provide the greatest spectacle this time around, too.
“We might see something similar with the starlings,” she said. “I’m interested to see whether they go to roost. It will get very noisy if they do.”
Woc Colburn thinks additional bird species and other zoo animals such as lemurs, clouded leopards and kangaroos may also begin to exhibit nighttime habits when totality hits, whether that’s waking up, going to sleep or lining up for a feeding.
It’s all speculation, however, which is something Woc Colburn finds quite surprising.
There is scant research on animal behavior during solar eclipses, owing primarily to the rarity of such events and the difficulty of recording enough observations. That’s poised to change.
“Sometimes you have great research ideas and just need people to do the observations,” Woc Colburn said. “That’s not going to be a problem Monday.”
Observers nationwide, including visitors to the Nashville Zoo, are being encouraged to join an ambitious and unprecedented attempt at crowdsourced scientific research by using the California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist app to document animal reactions.
Nashville researchers also plan to scrape social media postings that tag the zoo. Spokesman Jim Bartoo said researchers will accept any analog observations that are submitted.
“We’re expecting everyone to be in the 21st century,” he joked, “but if they take handwritten notes and can call us from a landline later, we will welcome that as well.”
At a minimum, Bartoo said the zoo will make the data collected Monday available to other researchers. Decisions on when, how and if the observations will be further used or published won’t be made until they are gathered and analyzed.
Bartoo predicts the zoo’s southern white rhinos may have a particularly interesting reaction, possibly lining up to go inside to eat, which is their routine at the end of the day. And how will they react if they aren’t fed, or when totality ends and it appears to be the middle of the day again.
The zoo is located in a mostly residential area 20 minutes southeast of downtown and is preparing for as many as 15,000 visitors.
Eclipse watchers are bracing for a major bummer should clouds obscure their view. While Woc Colburn agrees that would be a serious letdown, she also noted that clouds shouldn’t affect how animals react, so those who choose to spend the eclipse at the zoo won’t be wholly deprived of a unique experience.
Woc Colburn said it will be interesting and potentially useful to learn how much of an impact sunlight, versus other cues, has on animal behavior.
“I would have thought by now we would know more,” she said. “It will be worth noting if they have a very negative reaction. We can share that with other zoos and places, and they might take note and take certain precautions. But I’m not really expecting anything besides the ordinary nighttime routine.
“I think you’ll have more human reactions than animal reactions.”