by Whit Gibbons

January 16, 2005

In the last few days I have heard several stories about animal responses to the recent tsunami. I heard an anecdote about a herd of elephants trumpeting several minutes before the first waves arrived, demonstrating their awareness of the approaching doom. I read in the Wall Street Journal about a game warden on the southern coast of India who watched antelope rush from a low-lying coastal area to high ground--ten minutes before the first giant waves hit the shore. A Washington Post article reported that flamingos flew away to safety before the approaching tsunami arrived.

The conventional wisdom is that wildlife has an innate ability to detect and avoid natural disasters. Despite the devastating natural tragedy that befell the human population in the region, reports are that few species of native animals suffered. Some people believe that wild animals instinctively know of impending disasters and can predict upcoming earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes. Can they? Although I always like stories of animals outsmarting humans, I really don't think animals have any special powers beyond those that help them in their daily lives. For example, bats and dolphins can hear ultrasonic sounds; duckbill platypuses can detect electrical impulses created by a prey animal’s muscular activity; and some birds can navigate using the magnetic field from the North Pole. Abilities that people do not have, but not super powers.

I do not doubt that many animals detect certain natural signals, such as the early tremblings of an earthquake, long before humans. This means they have opportunity to react before we can. But to think they are reacting any differently from someone who runs for an exit at a shout of "fire" is to give wildlife more credit than is deserved. I remember stories a few years back about how grizzly bears and wolves in Yellowstone National Park "predicted" an earthquake hours before it happened. Nice story, but like all these natural disaster predictions by wildlife, it has two flaws.

First is the implication by the storytellers that the animals not only detect the upcoming problem but that they actually do something to save themselves. If you think about it, all they ever do is run, run, run (except for elephants, which trumpet, and I'm sure many people have reported that their dogs began barking before an earthquake hit their town). But do these running animals have any idea exactly where they are running? Are they simply doing what many people do when they first become aware of an approaching disaster? Run, run, run.

The second problem with these seemingly clairvoyant animals is that their psychic powers often are based on behaviors that people only recall after the event. Some animal behaviors happen frequently, but are not remembered unless an earthquake, tsunami, or mud slide follows. For example, if you see a fox cross a road, you just remember you saw a fox cross the road. But if an earthquake shook your neighborhood five minutes later, would you say the fox was making a preemptive move? I think many people would. And if they did, my first question would be to ask how the fox knew which way to run.

As far as running inland to get away from a tsunami, I think an antelope, flamingo, or any other fast animal would probably do so because that’s where the forests are. Feeling a trembling earth, even if minutes before we would feel it, would not give much guidance to a running or flying animal other than a response to seek safety. The woods are the safest place for most animals, so when they flee from a shoreline they go inland, which means not only woods but higher ground. Completely natural and not at all mystical.

As I said before, I like it when animals have powers beyond our own, as many do with special senses of detection that allow some to tune in to dramatic natural phenomena. But no wild creature has more of a plan of escape from a tsunami or earthquake than we do. They just get to be frightened a few minutes before the rest of us.

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