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What might one see hiking in the woods at night that looks like glowing eyes?
October 31, 2009 6:31 PM   Subscribe

What might one see hiking in the woods at night that looks like glowing eyes?

A couple of years ago I was part of a hiking party of three to some hot springs in Utah (Diamond Fork). We started late and took a trail we didn't know well. Two hours into the hike, not only were we not finding our destination, but the woods were getting denser and darker, blocking the moonlight, and we were getting progressively more spooked. About 1 am, we stopped to discuss turning around and giving up. This was when a random flashlight probe into the nearby trees revealed... two spark-ish points light that looked for all the world like eyes.

We held the beam there for a moment and asked amongst ourselves to see if everybody thought the same thing. Each of us confirmed this.

Now, at this point, we were pretty much thinking/hoping it might be reflections of dew, or maybe some woodland creature like an owl or a deer. When we moved the flashlight beam away for a bit to test the reflection theory... the points of light remained.

We moved the beam back. The points were still there. We stared for a bit and again asked each other for visual confirmation, getting increasingly nervous. Then they were gone.

We decided to get back as quickly as possible.

Any ideas what we might have seen?

(While I appreciate the fact that the human mind has a large capacity to play tricks on itself, I'm particularly interested in other explanations.)
posted by weston to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have you ruled out the possibility of it being a reflection of the eyes of some animal?
posted by jayder at 6:37 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


It was probably eyes. Even though you moved the flashlight away, animals often have very reflective eyes that will show up with even a small amount of light.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:38 PM on October 31, 2009


The simplest explanation that I can think of is you shone your light upon some creature with Tapetum lucidum, and, after moving the beam away, experienced a kind of persistent vision (as when looking at the sun or other bright object).

Also, as SMM points out, most flashlights have a 'throw' much larger than their area of focus.
posted by unmake at 6:44 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


White tailed deer have white eye reflections. Sometimes you can see just the eyes, and not the deer when you shine a flashlight in their directions. The effect still scares the shit out of me for a half second when I see it. Moving the flashlight won't stop the reflection because they keep looking at the flashlight.

Sometimes they will kind of follow you at night.
posted by 517 at 6:47 PM on October 31, 2009


Like this.
posted by 517 at 6:54 PM on October 31, 2009


you shone your light upon some creature with Tapetum lucidum

This seems likely.

Is there any kind of animal where the tapetum lucidum effect would persist for a bit after a light source had been removed?

I'm not sure how well the persistent vision effect or extra throw area of the flashlight fit the experience.

Moving the flashlight won't stop the reflection because they keep looking at the flashlight.

That's interesting. The height we saw them at seemed higher than I'd have expected for a deer (one reason I was thinking owl or other bird) but I think with some perspective considerations a deer is possible.
posted by weston at 6:58 PM on October 31, 2009


Here's a better one.
posted by 517 at 7:09 PM on October 31, 2009


I agree with unmake and the rest. Had to be glowing tapeums. Or ....? (happy halloween!)
posted by bebrave! at 7:11 PM on October 31, 2009


It was eyes. Of what, I can't say, but the eyes of many creatures with a tapetum lucidum will reflect enough moonlight to be visible without any additional light source. A fox, perhaps?
posted by ixohoxi at 7:12 PM on October 31, 2009


racoon. you'd be surprised...
posted by lolo341 at 7:14 PM on October 31, 2009


Is there any kind of animal where the tapetum lucidum effect would persist for a bit after a light source had been removed?

No. It's reflected light. They're not actually glowing.

I don't know of any animal on the planet whose eyes literally glow. It would make seeing difficult if you had a light source in your eyes.

I'm not sure how well the persistent vision effect or extra throw area of the flashlight fit the experience.

I don't buy the persistence of vision explanation.

However, in the dark, a flashlight would probably still reflect off the eyes almost regardless of where you pointed it. You could point it straight down, and it could very well continue to provide enough light to reflect off the eyes.

What's more, if you only moved the flashlight, say, 45°, then you were probably still shining the flashlight at the animal--just not the focus of the beam. Perhaps if you have a Surefire flashlight or some other similar well-rectified beam, I'd buy it; but with your garden variety Maglite, the beam is easily 80° wide.

Also, were you literally walking in the dark aside from that flashlight? No headlamps or the like? I regularly see eyes reflected well beyond the range at which my flashlight will reveal an image.
posted by Netzapper at 7:27 PM on October 31, 2009


As above, it was eyes. The animal was frozen to avoid attention, and staring at you to see if you posed a threat. It could have been something like the deer you thought it might, but I would think you would have heard it moving off. Maybe something smaller. Nothing to be worried about, unless there were bears in the area, and even then bears are usually more scared of you and not a threat unless you surprise them or get between them and their young.
posted by Dasein at 7:45 PM on October 31, 2009


My first guess would be ringtail cat. They are nocturnal, agile in trees, live in that area of Utah, and have very bright eye reflections. Sometimes they will hang around your camp at night, hoping for handouts.
posted by JackFlash at 8:38 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


When we moved the flashlight beam away for a bit to test the reflection theory... the points of light remained.

Moonlight and starlight can also throw enough light to cause a reflection from an animal's eyes, in addition to the light still being thrown by the flashlights.

I mention moonlight and starlight, cause many city slickers forget just how much moonlight and starlight there really is out in the woods, away from city lights.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:26 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


When you say it seemed to tall for a deer, can you estimate how tall it is? That would narrow down the possible animal types. I would second whitetail deer, as I've had a similar experience from this animal.
posted by itsonreserve at 9:59 PM on October 31, 2009


What colour were the eyes? Mammals have different colours of eyeshine. Humans are red, cougars are greenish, coyotes are yellow, etc.
posted by klanawa at 10:11 PM on October 31, 2009


Animals like to scare city people. Don't let it get to you.
posted by recurve at 1:09 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I do a great deal of mountain biking at night all over the United States with bright lights (700+ lumens). Spider eyes are surprisingly bright and, unless one looks with great care, the source of the reflections can be a mystery.
posted by rotifer at 1:33 AM on November 1, 2009


A house cat taking its nightly constitution in the woods?
posted by watercarrier at 5:45 AM on November 1, 2009


this has happened to me, in WV my family and I play flashlight tag late at night in a state park every year - one year while searching for family members i saw a pair of eyes and upon second look i saw the outline of a deer and baby deer snuggling close together in the woods. they were not happy with my flashlight and got up and left the area. at first glance all i had scene were the pairs of eyes. that may be what you saw.

then again, growing up on civil war battleground my brother used to scare me by saying he saw pairs of yellow eyes outside at night and that they were ghosts....
posted by dmbfan93 at 7:13 AM on November 1, 2009


I think I know what you saw.

On some trails in different areas there are plastic reflectors placed on trees in the shape of animal eyes.

I was told as a young camper that these were put up for hunters and campers so they would not get lost in the dark.

I personally saw these in a camp in Northern Arizona, but it really sounds like that's what you saw. I was totally freaked out when I saw them the first time and thought for sure there was a bear or a mountain lion stalking me.

The relectors were made of some kind of material that "held" the glow of our flashlights a little after we took the beam away.

Going back down the same trail the next morning we could see the "eyes" in the daylight. They looked like two peices of plastic that someone nailed onto the tree. The next night we had fun looking along the trail for the eyes and found them about every 20 yards or so.

Is it possible that you were on a hunting trail and that the "eyes" you saw were just trail markers?
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:20 AM on November 1, 2009


TooFewShoes: except that weston says that they disappeared after a little while, so it doesn't seem likely that they were reflecting trail markers.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 1:23 PM on November 1, 2009


I thought the eyes being gone would just be from the absorbed light fading. Did the eyes disappear while the flashlights were still on them?
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:51 PM on November 1, 2009


When you say it seemed to tall for a deer, can you estimate how tall it is?

I was actually thinking at least 10-12 ft up from the ground. Some tricks of perspective are possible here if what we actually saw was a ways off behind the trees and the slope changed, but if they were where they appeared to be, that's the height I'd guess at.

I'm kindof leaning towards JackFlash's ring-tailed cat suggestion or other tree-bound mammal, if not a bird. One thing I left out is that I don't remember any sound with the coming or going of the eyes. That seems like it'd have been hard to pull off for something that would have taken off by ground. Maybe something in the trees could have just turned away and decided not to move.

What colour were the eyes? Mammals have different colours of eyeshine. Humans are red, cougars are greenish, coyotes are yellow, etc.

That's an interesting thought.

I don't trust my color recollections particularly well, but I do remember that initially we thought maybe we were seeing light from distant campfires (sometimes people camp by these particular springs). That suggests a pale orange yellow color.

On some trails in different areas there are plastic reflectors placed on trees in the shape of animal eyes.

Not impossible, but it doesn't seem likely to me. It doesn't fit well with the moving-the-light-away and then having them disappear while we were shining the light on them, and I haven't frequently noticed those kinds of markers while hiking in that area before... usually trails there seemed to be marked with cairns or brown plastic posts (though those sometimes do have reflective marking on them).
posted by weston at 5:59 PM on November 2, 2009


I'm kindof leaning towards JackFlash's ring-tailed cat

Or, maybe not. The wikipedia entry says "It is found in rocky, desert habitat." That seems like a stretch for this part of Utah, which is a bit more forest-y.

Hmm.
posted by weston at 6:05 PM on November 2, 2009


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