Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?
During several nights spent camping outdoors during a period of aftershocks following a 6.9 magnitude earthquake, sleep was frequently interrupted by the raucous cries of peacocks (we’d camped next to an outdoor zoo), followed tens of seconds later by the baying and howling of dogs, and then… by the shaking of yet-another aftershock. How did these birds and dogs know that a quake was coming? Does the observed ability of animals to predict earthquakes belong to science, pseudoscience or psychic science?
Observations of animals predicting quakes goes back to ancient times. Rats, snakes and weasels deserted the Greek city of Helice just days before it was devastated by an earthquake in 373 BC. The beaching of oarfish is a warning for earthquakes in Japanese folklore. Tsunamis following earthquakes kill hundreds of thousands of people, but wildlife populations appear unaffected. Are these observations scientific, or are they focused memories of odd coincidental events that just happened to have occurred before a catastrophe?
If there is any science involved, this might be it: the seismic waves that accompany earthquake trembling create infrasonic “sounds” (that we previously reported are even translated to musical scores.We humans can hear sounds down to a frequency of about 20 hz (hz, or hertz, is a measurement of vibration frequency, one hz is one vibration/second). Cows, however, are sensitive to sounds of 16 hz, elephants even lower, and rhinos are known to produce sounds (which logically implies they can also hear such sounds) as low as 3 hz. Earthquake vibrations occur at infrasounds of 0.5 to 20 hz. Thus, many animals are much more highly sensitive to the infrasonics of earthquakes than are we.
Science or not? Toads, so it is reported, abandoned their pond in L’Aquila, Italy in 2009, just days before an earthquake: it is thought that these toads may have sensed changes in the chemistry of groundwater entering their pond in a pre-earthquake period. And elephants are known to have “super-touch” sensitivity in their feet; moths and aphids are extremely sensitive to changes in air pressure; and many bird species are sensitive to minute changes in the earth’s magnetic field that seem to accompany quakes… And this April, buffalo began leaving Yellowstone, instigating rumors of an impending major earthquake that, so far, hasn’t occurred.
The scientific jury is still out. The subject has a strong enough whiff of “pseudoscience” that serious funding doesn’t seem to be available to study the phenomena. But, were I to observe the sudden slinking away of snakes, rats, and weasels, I think I’d be one to join them.