Skip to main content

Carnivores Roam the Springtime Night Sky

In the last days of May and early June, a cluster of carnivorous constellations appears high in the Northern Hemisphere sky.
In the last days of May and early June, a cluster of carnivorous constellations appears high in the Northern Hemisphere sky.

During the last days of May and the first of June, navigating a cluster of carnivorous constellations can help you identify star patterns, including the Great Bear (Ursa Major), the Lion (Leo) and the Dragon (Draco).

That tip comes courtesy of Hans Augusto ("H.A.") Rey, who is best known for creating, with his wife, Margaret, the mischievous cartoon monkey Curious George. But Rey, who passed away in 1977, was also a very diligent amateur astronomer. His interest in astronomy began during World War I, when he found constellation diagrams confusing and difficult to remember.

So Rey redrew the constellations (using the same stars) so that they actually looked like the figures they represented. Rey wrote two constellation guides: one for adults ("The Stars — A New Way to See Them"; Houghton Mifflin, 1952) and another for children ("Find the Constellations"; Houghton Mifflin, 1954). Both books are considered classics and have never gone out of print. As a young boy growing up in the Bronx, I learned my way around the sky using Rey's books.

Related: 2019 Full Moon Calendar

Cosmic predators

At this particular time of the year, Rey liked to point out that you can become familiar with star patterns more easily if you remember some constellations as part of specific groups. And, during the latter days of May into early June, one of these groups dominates the midsection of the night sky, appearing high up and directly overhead as darkness falls: the "Carnivores' Corner." 

Rey's group of carnivores includes the Great Bear (Ursa Major), the Lion and Little Lion (Leo and Leo Minor), and the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici), with the Dragon (Draco), Little Bear (Ursa Minor) and Lynx adjoining them. 

Rey provided, in his own words, a crutch for memory: "Bears hibernate; the other carnivores in the sky follow their example, therefore they are harder to find during fall and early winter."

Unfortunately, most constellations in the Carnivores' Corner are composed of moderately dim or faint stars. But tracing connections between each constellation in Rey's group can help a skywatcher catch the right twinkles.

Within Ursa Major are the seven bright stars that are instantly recognized as the famous Big Dipper, which is almost directly overhead at nightfall. If we pretend that the bowl of the Dipper is filled with water and if we were to drill a hole through it, all that water would spurt out in the direction of the brightest of the celestial carnivores: Leo, the Lion.

Leo can be recognized by its "Sickle," made up of six stars marking his head and mane, arranged rather in the fashion of a question mark reflected in a mirror. Leo also includes a right triangle of stars representing the Lion's hindquarters and tail. 

Constellation creator

Roughly midway between the Dipper's handle and Leo's triangle is a rather isolated third-magnitude star, Cor Caroli, the only bright object in the little constellation of Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. This cluster was named by Johannes Hevelius, a 17th-century Renaissance man. Besides being an astronomer, Hevelius was an artist, engraver, well-to-do man of affairs and a leading citizen of Danzig, Poland. Hevelius drew 10 new constellations in his 1690 star atlas "Firmamentum Sobiescianum," seven of which survive to this day. In addition to the Hunting Dogs, two others of his star patterns are members of the Carnivores' Corner: Leo Minor and Lynx.

Interestingly, in the old astronomy books and sky charts that depicted the constellations as allegorical drawings, the brightest star of Lynx is found in the tuft of its tail. And from these old drawings it would seem that nearby Leo Minor, the Little Lion, is about to provoke a cat fight by biting Lynx's tail.

Although the telescope was just coming into general use during Hevelius' time, he openly rejected the new invention, preferring instead to rely on sighting instruments such as quadrants and alidades, which provide a line of sight to an object. Some considered him to be the last astronomer to do major work without the use of a telescope. In his star atlas, he actually tucked a cartoon into the corner of one sky chart showing a cherub holding a card with the Latin motto "The naked eye is best."

In creating Lynx, Hevelius chose a member of the cat family that possesses excellent eyesight. Lynx itself is a shapeless pattern composed chiefly of dim stars, and Hevelius openly admitted that you would have to have a lynx's eyes to see it!

Leapin' Lizards!

Lastly, there is Draco, the Dragon. I would suppose that at this moment in time, this might be the constellation that most young people might try to seek out, thanks to the popularity of the television show Game of Thrones, which had its own share of dragons encompassing its storyline.

Draco is the only member of the Carnivores' Corner that represents an animal from mythology. Like the bears, it is a circumpolar constellation: That is, it never rises or sets but is always visible at all times of the year in the northern sky. It is best seen during the warmer months, however. It's one of those curving streams of stars that the imaginations of the ancient stargazers readily converted into a sprawling celestial monster. 

At first, I questioned whether Draco belonged among the list of spring carnivores. After all, I am assuming that dragons would be linked to the lizard family. Most lizards, like the iguana, are exclusively herbivorous, climbing up into trees to eat the leaves, fruits and berries they find there. 

On the other hand, there are the Komodo dragons: lizards that are identified by their massive size, flat heads, forked tongues, bowed legs and long, thick tails. They possess sturdy jaws and throat muscles that allow them to swallow huge chunks of meat with astonishing rapidity. They can eat very large prey, such as large water buffalo, deer, carrion, pigs and even humans (yikes!).

These proclivities alone would certainly qualify a "true dragon" like Draco to be a member of the Carnivores' Corner! 

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for Verizon FiOS1 News in New York's lower Hudson Valley. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.