DO ANIMALS RESPOND TO NATURAL DISASTERS?
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.
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.
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.
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
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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