Did you know that, on any given night, you can spot animals among the stars? We’re talking about the constellations, the shapes formed by stars when you “connect the dots.” Here are some tips for how to spot them.
What You Do
- What Animal Constellations Are There?
Constellations have a rich and ancient history, and reflect the contributions of many different civilizations: Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs. But common to all of them were the shapes they saw in the night sky.
Many of these shapes were—and still are—animals. Of the 88 official constellations, nearly half are animals.
- Big Dog
- Bird of Paradise
- Flying Fish
- Great Bear
- Hunting Dogs
- Little Dog
- Little Fox
- Little Horse
- Little Lion
- Southern Fish
On a winter night in America, when the skies are clearer and the stars brighter than at any other time of year, you can spot a bull, a bear, a ram, and a hare—but only if you know where to look!
- The Big Dipper
The Big Dipper is the most famous group of stars, and an easy one to spot. You can see it in the northern sky on almost any clear night, from anywhere in America. In the sky, it looks like this:
- Finding North
Did you know that if you can find the Big Dipper you can always find North?
If you drew an imaginary line from the 2 stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl, it would point straight to Polaris, the North Star. If you face Polaris, you are facing north—and if you could stare at Polaris for hours at a time, you would notice that the other stars revolve around it while Polaris appears not to move at all.
This works no matter which the way the Dipper is turned as it circles the sky, even upside-down or sideways.
- All About Ursa Major, “The Great Bear”
The Big Dipper is actually part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major (The Great Bear). The Great Bear is one of the oldest of all the constellations, or “star pictures,” that make up the night sky. It looks like this:
On many nights, the Dipper is the only visible part of the the Great Bear—the rest of the stars either are too faint, or have ducked below the horizon and out of view.
- Finding The Great Bear
There is an interesting similarity between the Great Bear and its earthly counterparts. In winter, earthbound black and brown bears nestle into their dens and hibernate. Likewise, you’ll have a hard time tracing the figure of the Great Bear in wintertime, as its stars are low in the sky, close to—or just below—the horizon.
If you’re good, however, you can catch a glimpse of this sleepy constellation. And the Big Dipper, the Great Bear’s famous star group, can be seen easily all through the winter.
As Spring approaches, Ursa Major climbs higher and higher in the sky, and shines bright and visible all through the warmer months.
As Fall again turns to Winter, it appears to sink closer and closer to the ground, and back out of sight.
Practice spotting the Great Bear by first finding the Big Dipper and tracing the rest from there.
Keep any eye on it throughout the winter—you’ll find that as Spring gets closer and closer, this magnificent bear will come out of hibernation!
- Starry Stories
Now that you know how to spot some constellations, here are some legends about them.
A Greek Legend
- The ancient Greeks saw the Big Dipper as part of a constellation called the Great Bear or Ursa Major. The Little Dipper was part of the Little Bear or Ursa Minor constellation. The Greeks told a tale about Zeus, the king of the gods, and what happened when he fell in love with a beautiful woman, named Callisto. Zeus’s wife Hera was furious and turned Callisto into a great, shaggy bear. Later, Callisto’s son Arcas spotted a bear while he was hunting. Not knowing that the bear was his mother, he took aim and was about to shoot.
- But Zeus was watching. He prevented this tragedy by turning Arcas into a bear, too. Then he grabbed both bears by their tails and swung them up into the stars to keep them safe. This myth explains why both the Great and Little Bear constellations—our Big and Little Dipper—have long tails, and how they got up in the sky.
A Native American Tale
The Algonquins were a Native American people that lived in the northeastern United States. They saw the “bowl” of the Big Dipper as a bear. The stars in the Dipper handle were hunters that chased the bear across the sky. Every fall when the Big Dipper was low on the horizon, the hunters wounded the bear. A few drops of blood spilled down to Earth. The blood changed the leaves on the trees from green to the bright reds and oranges of autumn
Other Starry Stories
To people in other parts of the world, the Big and Little Dippers formed other shapes:
- In a Chinese legend, the Big Dipper was a scoop to measure out just enough food for everyone in a time of famine.
- Native Americans in California saw a flock of seven geese.
- In England and Ireland, people said the stars were a plow.
- Germans saw a wagon and three horses.
- The Aztecs in Mexico saw a jaguar.
- In the early 1800s in the United States, many slaves tried to run away from their southern slave-masters and head north to freedom. They relied on the Big Dipper, which they called the “drinking gourd,” to get there. They often sang a song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” It urged the slaves to use the drinking gourd to find the North Star—and go in that direction.
Of course, you can still look up at the sky and find shapes and stories of your own. What do you see?
Ursa Major Photo: By Till Credner (Own work: AlltheSky.com) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons