Approaching a new Moon: how does the Earth’s Moon affect wildlife?

On 13 March 2021, the Earth’s Moon will enter a new lunar phase known as a new Moon. We, as humans, traditionally go to bed whilst the Moon is in the sky but what affect does this famous satellite have on our planet’s wildlife?

What is a new Moon?

The Earth’s Moon goes through eight lunar phases (roughly) every month as a result of where it is positioned in relation to our planet and the Sun. The Moon reflects the Sun’s light, which is how we are able to see it during seven of the lunar phases. However, when the Moon is inbetween the Earth and the Sun, it’s practically invisible to us since we cannot see the side that is reflecting the light. This lunar phase is known as the new Moon (not pictured here) and, in astronomy, is considered to be the first lunar phase.

What effect does the Moon have on wildlife?

For many animals, especially birds, the Moon plays a huge part in how they navigate the world as well as time their migration patterns. Others, such as nocturnal animals, use the bright light of the Moon to hunt or forage more easily and effectively throughout the night. And then there are species whose reproductive cycles coincide with the various lunar phases… who knew?!

Dung beetle

Did you know that a species of African dung beetle, called Scarabaeus zambezianus, relies on the light of the Moon to effectively collect dung? Their main aim is to get a ball of fresh dung to the safety of their burrow as quickly as possible. Moonlight helps them take the quickest route – in a straight line – whereas the absence of this light has shown that these beetles end up rolling along random, wiggly paths.

Eagle owl

In times of a full Moon, an eagle owl’s ability to communicate increases. This is because they commonly inflate and deflate their white throat feathers (also known as their white “badge”) during their visual call displays. It’s believed that this behaviour increases during a full Moon as a result of the feathers being more visible in the light reflected off the Moon’s surface.

Great Barrier Reef

The mass spawning of corals – when colonies and various species of coral polyps all release tiny egg and sperm bundles into the water at the same time in the likelihood that fertilisation will take place – is triggered by the Moon. This spectacular coordinated event always takes place after a full Moon during the months of October and December, when the temperature, salinity, and availability of food are also just right.

Other species affected by the Moon

Small creatures called sand hoppers use the Moon (and the Sun) to help them navigate their way around their seafront home to avoid the risk of being eaten by predators, swept out to sea or getting stranded – and drying out – on the beach. They know that they need to stay buried under the sand when the Sun is out and that they are able to resurface to forage when the Moon is present and there is a low tide.

A species of endangered seabird called a Barau’s petrel is believed to use the lunar phases of the Moon and the length of the day to time their migration pattern and reproductive cycle. These birds breed on Réunion island in the Indian Ocean and commonly wait until the days reach 12.5 hours long before setting off on their pre- and post-migration routes. They always reach their breeding ground at the same time as a full Moon.

But it’s not just animals that feel the effects of the Moon – plants do, too! The joint-pine or Mormon tea, a Mediterranean plant species called Ephedra foemina, uses the light of the Moon to attract insects. This plant, which belongs to a group of plants called a gymnosperm that includes cycads, conifers, and Gingko, produces droplets of fluid from its cones. Since they have no scent or flowers to attract the insects for pollination, they rely on the Moonlight to illuminate these droplets and make them sparkle, so that it catches the attention of as many pollinators as possible.

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