Can Animals Sense Natural Disasters?

Herd of bison
A herd of bison. Philip Nealey/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake along the floor of the Indian Ocean was responsible for a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands of people in Asia and East Africa. In the midst of all the destruction, wildlife officials at Sri Lanka's Yala National Park have reported no mass animal deaths. Yala National Park is a wildlife reserve populated by hundreds of wild animals including various species of reptiles, amphibians, and ​mammals. Among the most popular residents are the reserves elephants, leopards, and monkeys. Researchers believe that these animals were able to sense the danger long before humans.

Can Animals Sense Natural Disasters?

Asian Elephant at Yala National Park
Asian Elephant at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.  SolStock/E+/Getty Images

Animals have keen senses that help them avoid predators or locate prey. It is thought that these senses might also help them detect pending disasters. Several countries have conducted research on the detection of earthquakes by animals. There are two theories as to how animals may be able to detect earthquakes. One theory is that animals sense the earth's vibrations. Another is that they can detect changes in the air or gases released by the earth. There has been no conclusive evidence as to how animals may be able to sense earthquakes. Some researchers believe the animals at Yala National Park were able to detect the earthquake and move to higher ground before the tsunami hit, causing massive waves and flooding.

Other researchers are skeptical about using animals as earthquake and natural disaster detectors. They cite the difficulty of developing a controlled study that can connect a specific animal behavior with an earthquake occurrence. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) officially states, "Changes in animal behavior cannot be used to predict earthquakes. Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been made. Because of their finely tuned senses, animals can often feel the earthquake at its earliest stages before the humans around it can. This feeds the myth that the animal knew the earthquake was coming. But animals also change their behavior for many reasons, and given that an earthquake can shake millions of people, it is likely that a few of their pets will, by chance, be acting strangely before an earthquake."

Although scientists disagree as to whether animal behavior can be used to predict earthquakes and natural disasters, they all agree that it is possible for animals to sense changes in the environment before humans. Researchers around the world are continuing to study animal behavior and earthquakes. It is hoped that these studies will help to aid earthquake predictions.

Unusual Animal Behavior

Toads

In 2009, toads near L'Aquila, Italy deserted their mating sites prior to an earthquake. They did not return until a few days later after the last of the aftershocks. Researchers suggest that the toads may have been able to detect changes in the planet's atmospheric electrical fields. Changes in the ionosphere occurred prior to the earthquake and is thought to be related to either radon gas release or gravity waves.

Birds and Mammals

By reviewing motion-sensor camera activity, scientists in Yanachaga National Park, Peru noticed behavioral changes in the birds and mammals at the park prior to an earthquake in 2011. The animals exhibited a sharp decrease in activity for up to three weeks prior the quake. The lack of activity was even more pronounced in the week prior to the event. The researchers also noted a change in the ionosphere seven to eight days before the earthquake.

Mount Etna
Mount Etna. Salvatore Catalano/FOAP/Getty Images 

Goats

In 2012, researchers studying goat behavior on Mount Etna in Sicily noticed that the goats became nervous and fled hours before a volcanic eruption. The researchers believe that the goats could detect early warning signs of the eruption such as tremors and the release of gases. It was also noted that the goats only ran away prior to violent eruptions and not in response to every ground tremor. The researchers are now using GPS trackers to monitor animal movements worldwide in the hopes of being able to predict natural disasters more reliably.

Earthquake Predictions

According to the USGS, there are three elements to a successful earthquake prediction.

  • Date and time: The specific date and time must be indicated and not a general statement such as, an earthquake will occur sometime in the next 30 days.
  • Location: The place of the earthquake must be identified. Stating a general region, such as along the U.S. west coast, is not acceptable.
  • Magnitude: The magnitude of the earthquake must be specified.

Sources

  • "Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?" USGS, www.usgs.gov/faqs/can-animals-predict-earthquakes.
  • "Can You Predict Earthquakes?" USGS, www.usgs.gov/faqs/can-you-predict-earthquakes. 
  • Grant, Rachel A., et al. "Changes in Animal Activity Prior to a Major (M= 7) Earthquake in the Peruvian Andes." Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, vol. 85-86, 2015, pp. 69–77., doi:10.1016/j.pce.2015.02.012. 
  • Povoledo, Elisabetta. "Can Animals Predict Earthquakes? Italian Farm Acts as a Lab to Find Out." The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/17/world/europe/italy-earthquakes-animals-predicting-natural-disasters.html. 
  • Zoological Society of London. "Toads' Earthquake Exodus." ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 1 Apr. 2010, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100330210949.htm.