It’s a Full Moon. Do You Really Know What Those Wild Animals Are Up To?
Published on March 05, 2012
With the full moon illuminating our night sky tonight, Vetstreet decided to take a look at the many fascinating lunar legends tied to critters — and the ways that some animals are actually affected by that big pie in the sky.
It’s a Man on the Moon. No, It’s a Rabbit!
When we look at the full moon, we tend to see a human face. For some other cultures, it’s not a man on the moon, but an animal.
The Japanese spy a rabbit pounding rice to make mochi, a sticky rice cake. During the traditional autumn moon–viewing season, they make rabbit-shaped sweets to celebrate.
In China, they see a rabbit too, but theirs is pounding herbs for his companion, a woman who fled to the moon to escape punishment for stealing a potion that gave her eternal life. The bunny is trying to make medicine that will allow her to return to her lover on earth — but despite thousands of years at the task, she’s still biding time on her lunar home.
The Peruvians see a fox who climbed up to the moon using a rope. His mole sidekick fell back to earth— and now all moles have to hide underground to avoid being taunted for their ancestor’s foolish adventure.
And some Native American folktales attribute the waxing and waning of the moon to a mischievous animal. In one, a woman living on the moon is weaving a headband that makes the moon grow full. Every month, her cat unravels it, making the moon grow small again, so she has to start over. In another tale, the woman is embroidering, and when she gets up to stir a pot, her dog unravels her handiwork.
Modern Lunar Legends
Some of our current beliefs about animals and the moon turn out to be folktales as well.
For example, there’s no scientific evidence that wolves howl at the moon. They just happen to be awake at night, and howl more when it’s lighter out — such as when the moon is full. Wolves also roam less on well-lit nights, perhaps because their prey is laying low since it can be easily spotted. So maybe wolves have nothing else to do but sing!
There’s also a common belief that, when baby sea turtles emerge from their nests, they look to the full moon to find the ocean. The reality is that sea turtles hatch at all phases of the moon, and what they actually follow is the natural light reflected off the ocean.
Full (Moon) Bellies
No one really believes that werewolves come out during the full moon. However, you may want to be careful just after the full moon: Research has shown that you’re more likely to be eaten by a lion then. There’s no mystical reason for it — lions have the most success hunting under cover of darkness, so after a few nights well lit by a full moon, they’re especially hungry. So when the moon wanes, and it starts getting dark again, watch out!
There’s also evidence that some birds are more active during the full moon, and scientists think this is also tied to predator-prey relationships. Studies of two seabirds, the Barau’s petrel and the streaked shearwater, have shown that they spend less time floating on the water and more time in the air when the moon is full. It’s theorized that the birds spend more time hunting because they can more easily see prey and less time resting on the water where seals and sharks can easily see them!
Humans often associate the full moon with romance — and there are some animals that do the same.
It’s recently been discovered that some frogs and toads migrate to breed during the full moon. Although it’s not known why, at least they all get to the same place at the same time, which is pretty important when you’ve got only one chance per year to find a mate.
And corals (yes, corals are animals!) spawn at the full moon. You may wonder how they know the moon is full, seeing as they don’t have eyes. Scientists wondered this for a long time too, until they finally figured out that corals actually have primitive light-receptor cells that respond to moonlight, allowing thousands of coral reefs to release their eggs and sperm almost simultaneously.
When it comes to mammals, there’s actually one species that avoids love altogether during the full moon. A researcher found that badgers prefer to romance their mates during the new moon, theorizing that this is due to their great stamina when it comes to lovemaking — they often do it for 90 minutes or more at a time, and the darkness keeps them safer.
Linda Lombardi is a former zookeeper, college professor and the author of Animals Behaving Badly, a new book that grew from her blog of the same name.