Lunar Nature: The Moon and Earth Connection

Although one is a barren rock, the gravitational bond between moon and Earth has resulted in the one influencing life — and lore — on the other since life began.

| April/May 2010

  • moon and earth - full moon
    From old wives’ tales to scientifically proven effects, the moon makes an impact here on Earth in numerous ways.
  • moon and bird
    You can count the number of birds that fly across a full moon to estimate how many birds are migrating.
  • luna moth
    After coming out of its cocoon, a luna moth lives for one week, never eating, but focused on finding a mate.
  • moon and earth - ruffed grouse
    The full moon compels the ruffed grouse to "crazy flights."
  • canada moonseed
    Canada moonseed appears similar to wild grapes, but its pretty berries are dangerous.
  • canada moonseed berries
    Canada moonseed berries contain a single crescent-moon shaped seed. The berries look appetizing, but are dangerous if eaten.
  • moon and earth - tide pools
    Tide pools during low tide at Slip Point, Clallam Bay, Sekiu, WA.
  • moon and earth - moonbow
    A rare, gorgeous moonbow over Victoria Falls, Africa.

  • moon and earth - full moon
  • moon and bird
  • luna moth
  • moon and earth - ruffed grouse
  • canada moonseed
  • canada moonseed berries
  • moon and earth - tide pools
  • moon and earth - moonbow

Look at the moon, and the last thing you think of is life. Suspended in space some 239,000 miles from Earth, it’s great for gazing at. But biologically, despite the recent discovery of water traces in shadowed craters, it’s a wasteland. Its air is unbreathable. Its temperatures are extreme: a blistering 243 degrees Fahrenheit during the month-long lunar day, followed by another month of deep-freeze night at 272 degrees below zero.

But that’s the moon on the moon. The moon and Earth are linked in countless ways that influence life here: Astronomers, for example, tell us that without the moon’s stabilizing gravity, our planet would wobble erratically on its axis, creating climatic chaos. Other connections are less consequential and more reflective of our culture: moonshine, honeymoons and cows jumping over the moon. But the moon is connected to Earth’s biological life, too, in ways both literal and figurative, direct and indirect. Here are a few examples.

Moon Birds

Each spring and fall, our skies fill with the beating wings of birds making their annual migrations — a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists for millennia. Aristotle was among the first to suggest an explanation for the birds’ mysterious seasonal appearances and disappearances. Some species, he thought, simply hid themselves in the ground until spring. “Swallows, for instance, have often been found in holes, quite denuded of their feathers,” he wrote.

Eclipsing all other far-fetched migration theories, though, was the one presented in 1703 in a booklet titled Whence Come the Stork and the Turtle, the Crane and the Swallow, When They Know and Observe the Appointed Time of Their Coming. Birds, suggested the publication’s author, fly to the moon to spend the winter.

It’s a funny proposition in light of modern science, but don’t laugh too hard. For the past 100 years, counting birds “on” the moon has been one of ornithology’s most important tools for calculating how many, and in which directions, birds migrate. The technique, called “moonwatching,” uses the disc of the full moon as a backlit random sample of the night sky. Although some birds migrate during the day, the vast majority — swallows, sparrows, herons, warblers, flycatchers, nuthatches, wrens, orioles and most others — make the trip at night.

Around the turn of the 20th century, astronomers using telescopes noticed that birds flying in front of a bright, full moon cast clearly discernible silhouettes. By counting the number of birds passing across the moon’s face in a given amount of time, and extrapolating that number based on the size of the full moon relative to the whole sky, scientists can calculate a fair approximation of the total numbers of birds traveling during a given period.

4/26/2010 6:21:14 PM

Having been an educator for over 30 years, it's not a joke when a teacher says, "It must be a full moon!" when hallway noise increases 3 days before and 3 days after a full moon.

Fritz Owens
4/26/2010 2:58:58 PM

Please explain why the NYC Police Department puts on 1/3 more officers five days before the full moon and three days after? You seem to think that "lunacy" is a joke. As a professional performing musician for over 40 years in New Orleans it would be impossible to document the numerous times someone in the band would say "Where did all these weirdos come from? Is it a full moon?" And invariably, the moon was one or two days either side of being full, more often than not being actually the night of the full moon. And you're trying to tell people that's coincidence? The Greeks knew what they were doing when they called the weirdos "lunatics". It is most ccertainly connected with the phases of the moon. Why don't you get on the real story? Fritz Owens Professional pianist, composer, teacher and keyboard recording artist for over 40 years in New Orleans - until Katrina


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