What do scientists learn from an eclipse? Local researchers probe the soundscape

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 22, 2017 2:20 pm

Monday's solar eclipse captured the fascination of millions of people around the U.S., but for scientists the cosmic phenomenon opened the door to research that extends beyond potential astronomical discoveries.

Researchers at SUNY Geneseo are hoping to learn more about the wildlife in parts of the Rochester region through audio recordings they made before and during the partial eclipse.

They placed recorders in four locations from Rush to Letchworth State Park; two in forested areas, one in a grassland, and one at the edge of a farmer’s field.

“Starting at this time of the year, insects actually make up most of the biophony or the sound that’s produced by natural organisms,” said Kristina Hannam, associate professor of biology at SUNY Geneseo. “Birds are also singing, but mammals also use sound to communicate; squirrels and bats, for example.

There were anecdotal reports from scientists during the eclipse who observed cicadas falling silent, monarch butterflies pausing from their foraging, and herons flocking to their nighttime roosts. But it will be months before any scientific data is reviewed and analyzed.

The analysis of the soundscape in natural environments is a relatively new field of study, according to Hannam. It can be used to gather certain information about various species in certain habitats.

"We can use soundscapes - audio recordings of a landscape - to assess the biodiversity of a place,” she said. “For example, without having to walk a transect and count every animal we see; we can, in effect, count them by ear."

Other scientists made audio recordings of wildlife in the path of totality. One project is a joint effort by scientists at NASA and the National Parks Service. Hannam said it will be interesting to compare what they collected to the sounds of birds, insects, and mammals in a partial eclipse.

"I don't know if the quality of the change in the light at 70 percent totality is not that different from a cloudy day here in the summertime and so that is going to be somewhat of a confounding factor."

Hannam said she will be recruiting a student to help retrieve and statistically analyze several hours of recordings. She hopes to publish her results by next spring.  And like many Rochester area residents who were gazing skyward Monday, Hannam said she is looking forward to the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, when this part of the country will be in the path of totality.