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A Once-in-Many-Centuries Event

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The Sun’s corona shining brightly during a total solar eclipse in 2017. Created by the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Lab.

Here in the U.S., many of us are eagerly awaiting the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse, the last of its kind to cross our paths (at least in the contiguous U.S.) until the year 2045. Austin, Texas, where we produce Point of Discovery, is right in the path of totality. And this eclipse feels even more special because the last total solar eclipse in Austin happened before there was an Austin, in the year 1397.

On today’s show, we talk to bird biologist Peter English about the strange ways that animals respond to solar eclipses; biologist David Ledesma about the plants and animals that lived in Central Texas 600 years ago; and archaeologist Fred Valdez about what Native Americans might have made of that last solar eclipse.


Marc Airhart: Peter English is a bird biologist at The University of Texas at Austin. Back in the 90s, he was working on his Ph.D. in the jungles of Ecuador. He was studying how different types of birds joined together to form flocks. Every day, he’d hike out to his study site by himself and follow the flocks around. But this one day was different. It was the middle of the day and …

Peter English: … it started getting darker and darker. … and I was starting to think, ‘Wow, a really serious storm is brewing, like I better get to someplace to get out of this, or I’m just gonna get soaked.’

PE: And as I was starting to notice this darkness, the birds started to make the calls that they make at the end of the day, as they’re going to roost. They stopped foraging. Normally they’re looking for insects and foraging, and they stopped doing that … And they just kind of started going to bed, which was really, really weird because they didn’t do that with a normal rainstorm.

PE: And then night birds start calling, like owls started calling. And these things that call right at dusk, some night jars, birds that are nighttime birds that eat insects were – started calling. And it was as if it was becoming nighttime. It was very, very strange because this was the middle of the afternoon.

MA: Worried that he was about to get caught in the mother of all rainstorms, he ran more than a mile through the jungle to try and find shelter.

PE: And I got out to sort of the open area near the road, and I looked up. And I couldn’t see any clouds. It was still weirdly dark, but there were no clouds in the sky. And I just was puzzled from it. I was like, “What?!” … I felt like I was in some weird dream or something where all the weird things were happening simultaneously. And then I thought:

PE: It must be an eclipse. And so I turned my binoculars around backwards, so I could show it on my palm. And sure enough, the sun was being mostly, almost completely obscured by the moon. … But once I figured out it was an eclipse, like it all kind of made sense.

MA: Then he realized the birds were just as confused as he was. He rushed back to see what would happen when the sun came back out.

PE: So when I went back, found my birds, they woke up as if it were morning and went about their day, unfazed.

PE: And … that night, I went back to the research station and talked to other people who had been out in the field. And a friend of mine was studying monkeys. And he said, “Same thing happened with the monkeys, they kind of went to bed. And then they just woke up.”

MA: Other scientists have noticed spiders tearing down their webs during an eclipse and then minutes later, as the sun emerges, rebuilding them as if a new day’s dawning. Bats who feed at night have been seen emerging from their roosts to forage in the artificial night of a total solar eclipse. English says in that moment in the jungles of Ecuador, he—and the birds and the monkeys—were all in the exact same situation.

PE: We were all equally oblivious to what was happening. And going back, I would not have changed a thing. I am so glad I didn’t know an eclipse was happening. If I had been waiting for it, like looking at my watch waiting for like 1:15 or whatever, it wouldn’t have been as magical as it was to just have it happen. Because how often, in this day and age—like—I know what the weather’s gonna be like next week, right? So it’s, how often do you have like, some massive surprise about the world around you? It very rarely happens.

MA: I’m Marc Airhart. Today on Point of Discovery, we’re exploring the weird and wonderful world of solar eclipses. We’re based here in Austin, Texas, where folks are preparing for a total solar eclipse that (OK, spoiler alert) will happen on Monday, April 8th in the early afternoon. This one feels pretty special because any given spot on Earth typically only has a total solar eclipse every few hundred years. In fact, the last one in Austin happened before there was an Austin, in the year 1397. I wanted to get a feeling for what that last total-eclipse moment might have been like. So I went to see David Ledesma, a Ph.D. student in the lab of integrative biology professor Melissa Kemp. Ledesma knows a bit about the ancient climate and landscape of Central Texas.

David Ledesma: And my research looks at the responses of reptiles … and amphibians in Central Texas, since the last glacial maximum. So I use fossils from a cave site, to try to understand how these herpetofauna responded to environmental changes, over 20,000 years … which might be used in conservation practices today to try to manage and help populations in the face of oncoming climate change.

MA: So if you got into a time machine, and you were able to just, you know, stay in the same place, but just jump back 600 years, what would we notice that would be different …?

DL: There was more widespread prairie grassland type environments. … But those have …, especially since European colonizers came and began grazing their cattle, a lot of the cattle tend to overgraze, and so it kind of depletes those prairie grasslands. And that, coupled with fire suppression, have kind of transformed those prairie grasslands … that were probably there into kind of more shrub land or more type of tree-covered vegetational landscapes. … And then bison probably would have roamed on those prairies and grazed as well.

MA: Many of today’s iconic native species of Central Texas – like bluebonnets and armadillos – would have been around 600 years ago, too. But they weren’t alone. Picture a lot of predators that tend to get active when sunlight fades away.

DL: There are some species that probably would have been around that aren’t around today, including jaguars. … And … jaguars … weren’t extirpated or go locally extinct from Texas until the 1900s. … Wolves also were around … in this area of Texas, as well. And they aren’t found here today … because of people coming in and kind of expanding and either hunting them or … driving them away.

MA: There were a lot fewer people in the area 600 years ago than there are today. But there were some. To find out about their experience, during that 1397 total solar eclipse, I headed to a non-descript warehouse in north Austin.

Fred Valdez: So I’m Fred Valdez. And I’m a professor in the Department of Anthropology. I also, at this point, I’m director of the Texas Archaeological Research Lab. But … as a general introduction, just Fred is fine.

MA: What was life was like for Native Americans who came and went through this area 600 years ago?

FV: The people that were here are hunters and gatherers … and by then the bow and arrow had been introduced. So that was a huge leap forward in hunting activities that were taking place. … We don’t know the exact ethnic groups … There are a number of groups that … we know from the historic period or from later periods that are named groups, anywhere from the Karankawa and Comanche and Apache and the Coahuiltecan-speaking bands, and so forth. So we can identify some of those a little bit later in time from other kinds of records in European accounts and those kinds of things.

MA: The earliest of those written records described people who likely were descendants of the nomadic bands that were here at the time of the eclipse. The people who were here in the 1390s lived in small groups that were essentially extended families and went where there was food. When food was especially plentiful, smaller bands would gather together with other bands.

FV: That’s a real opportunity for … trading and exchanging of particular items, maybe personal items, maybe that’s where you find the equivalent of a spouse, maybe there are ceremonies and rituals where, you know, boys become men and girls become women. … The exchange of knowledge was probably critical at that point, learning about other landscapes or things that are happening elsewhere, or something … new somebody found or discovered, and so forth.

MA: Unfortunately, Valdez says we don’t have any written or oral stories that have survived from these native people 600 years ago. I asked him for his best guess as to how they might have reacted—if they were out gathering pecans or washing their clothes or settling a baby down for a nap—and the sun slowly vanished from the afternoon sky.

FV: My gut instinct about that … would be that a lot of … how the eclipse would be taken, how it would be viewed, would probably have been flavored … for lack of a better word, by whatever else was going on at the time, you know, for better or for worse.

MA: So maybe things are going really well …

FV: What if for the last two days, you know, “We’re in camp, and we’ve had a great bounty, lots of stuff that we’ve gathered and are consuming. Fishing is wonderful, a small herd of bison happened to come through and we … bagged those and brought them in, and we’re processing them.” Life is good, and it’s going about as great as it ever could be. And now you have this eclipse. “Have we offended the spirits somehow? Have we overtaken … more than we should?”

MA: In other words, maybe it’s a warning and you better straighten up. Or, on the other hand, maybe life’s been a real struggle, and your band is barely surviving. Maybe the eclipse takes on an entirely different meaning.

FV: Does the world change? Maybe you’ve suffered enough and now it’s a brand new world: The sun has come back out, and we’re going to do great from this point forward. There are all kinds … of possibilities of interpreting that event and what people here at that time would have been thinking or how they may have taken it. …

MA: Either way, you would probably be relieved when it was all over, and things went back to normal. But then a troubling thought might occur to you.

FV: Is this going to happen again? Is it going to happen again in the next hour? Is it going to happen again tomorrow, next week, next month? Did we do something to cause this? You know, that gives you … plenty to think about.

MA: That’s our show. Point of Discovery is a production of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences and is a part of the Texas Podcast Network. The opinions expressed in this podcast represent the views of the hosts and guests, and not of The University of Texas at Austin.

MA: For links to more resources about how solar eclipses affect plants and animals, what to expect with this April’s eclipse and how to safely enjoy watching it yourself, head on over to our website at pointofdiscovery.org. And be sure to check out the University’s eclipse website: eclipse.utexas.edu.

MA: If you like our show, be sure and tell your friends. We’re available wherever you get your podcasts.

MA: Special thanks today to our guests Peter English, David Ledesma and Fred Valdez. Our theme music was composed by Charlie Harper. Our senior producer is Christine Sinatra.

MA: I’m Marc Airhart. And if you find yourself near the path of the total solar eclipse on April 8th, may your skies be clear.

Episode Credits

Select bird sounds from: Yasuni Soundscapes – Ecuador 2018, by Lang Elliott

Our theme music was composed by Charlie Harper

Other music for today’s show was produced by: Podington Bear

Cover image: The Sun’s corona shining brightly during a total solar eclipse in 2009. This media was created by the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab). Credit: Miloslav Druckmüller, Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rušin, Ľubomír Klocok, Karel Martišek, Martin Dietzel. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.