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Eclipse science: From galloping giraffes to solar wisps

Last Updated Aug 21, 2017 at 8:40 pm EST

U.S. Air Force Col. Mark Henderson of Mississippi videoing giraffes at Nashville Zoo on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, in early stages of the eclipse in Nashville, Tenn. Henderson would later send information to scientists studying animal reaction. (AP Photo/Seth Borenstein)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The giraffes ran in circles. The flamingos huddled together. And the rhinos just looked confused.

At the Nashville Zoo, visitors watched and recorded how the animals behaved when the sky turned dark during Monday’s total solar eclipse. And there was plenty to see when the moon slipped in front of the sun.

The only trouble was with 7,000 visitors and lots of noise — drowning out the zoo animals, crickets and cicadas — zookeepers still have to figure whether the strange behaviour was from the eclipse or the people there to watch the show.

The zoo project was one of many science experiments planned for the eclipse. Citizen-scientists and their more professional counterparts loaded up on pictures, video, data and just weird experiences as the eclipse’s shadow crossed the United States, especially paying attention to the edges flaring out of the darkened sun.

Telescopes on the ground, a fleet of satellites and astronauts in space watched the eclipse unfold. High-altitude balloons were released across the country, carrying experiments and providing live video.

Now scientists have to figure out what it all means.

“The balloon footage live was fantastic,” said Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, who headed the balloon project. “You could really see the sunset effect, the shadow come across.”

For the National Solar Observatory’s Citizen CATE project, everyday people were given telescopes and camera equipment and trained to record the eclipse as it moved from Oregon to South Carolina.

“It was really successful,” said Matt Penn, an astronomer who ran the project.

Skies were clear in at least 50 of the 70 sites, including the first and last locations on the coasts, he said. By the end of Monday night, Penn hoped to have a 70-minute movie stitched together.

“We captured the right images of the science that we wanted,” he said.

Astronomers concentrated on the plumes from the sun’s polar region to help understand why the solar wind speeds up so much, Penn said. The sun’s upper atmosphere, called the corona, or crown, was the focus of astronomers’ attention. It’s easier to study when the sun is blocked.

Honour S. Hare, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, was at an elementary school in Adairville, Kentucky, overseeing the observations there.

“It has been a great opportunity and I have learned so much,” she said.

At the Nashville Zoo, the giraffes were the stars. Especially 6-month-old Mazi and 3-year-old Nasha.

“They’re crazy running around,” said Nate Zatezalo, who came from Cleveland, where he volunteers at the zoo there.

During the full eclipse, all four giraffes ran. That’s not unusual for the two juveniles who scamper at twilight after the crowds leave. But the father giraffe, Congo, “usually doesn’t do anything other than being the dad” and is regal and above it all, said zoo volunteer Stephan Foust. But even the above-it-all dad got in on the running during darkness.

Zookeepers reported that before totality the orangutans climbed to the highest heights they’ve ever gone.

Teresa Morehead of Indianapolis came to the zoo to help track the animals on an app called iNaturalist.

She staked out the giraffes and rhinos. The rhinos wandered a bit, seeming to head to bed.

“I was surprised to the see they were running,'” she said, although noting that they seemed more confused than anything.

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AP video journalist Kristin Hall contributed from Nashville.