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Western Slope Skies - The Lunar Effect

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The moon is earth’s only natural satellite—an almost (but not quite) sphere made of rock and metal that appears to change shape and disappear on a 29-1/2-day cycle. Being creatures that earnestly try to make sense of a world that often makes no sense, humans have imbued the moon with meaning, mystery, and magic.

For centuries it was common knowledge that the moon affected human behavior. A full moon could be dangerous, spurring an episode of lunacy or maybe a terrifying transmogrification from a mild-mannered person into a hideous bloodthirsty beast. As you may already know, the word lunacy itself comes from the Latin word lunaticus—meaning, quite simply, moonstruck. Although the moon’s influence on a person’s sanity and their moods has been largely dismissed by science as folklore, these myths persist and influence our perception of the world. Not only do they influence how we perceive the world, but they help us to make sense OF the world.

Maybe this all seems wacky and silly or just a little whimsical, but the mythologies we believe tell us about ourselves-- our hopes, our dreams, our fears and our desires. Moon lore starts to seem less weird when you look at the way that lunar cycle effects various members of the animal kingdom. Oysters—who open their shells to eat and spawn—tend to open wide during a new moon and keep tight-lipped (tight-shelled?) during a full moon. Whip-poor-wills, nocturnal birds known for their haunting call, synchronize their reproductive cycles to the lunar cycle. They lay their eggs during a young waxing moon. This maximizes the amount of moonlight they have in order to forage for insects to feed their helpless nestlings. The full moon triggers the mass spawning of various coral species-- releasing their eggs and sperm into the ocean simultaneously in a showy display of group sex.

Although, not as salacious as the love life of coral, recent studies do seem to validate common moon lore as it pertains to humans. The lunar cycle does seem to affect the quality of human sleep. People on average go to bed later and get less sleep in the days leading up to and during a full moon. The quality of sleep is also affected. As the moon wanes, people sleep better and longer. As the parents of any angry toddler can tell you, sleep affects mood, so maybe those tales of aggression spiking during a full moon aren’t so wacky.

Tonight, remember to look up at the sky and take solace in the fact that the moon is always in flux. If tonight it is full and reigning chaos upon your life, by next week it will have shrunk some, perhaps along with that chaos. Take comfort in knowing that creatures who have been here for eons feel that powerful pull of the moon, too.

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Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Gianna Farrell, Park Ranger at Mesa Verde National Park.