CAN ANIMALS PREDICT NATURAL DISASTERS?

by Whit Gibbons

August 20, 2017

Q: I participate in an aspiring minds programme at Thomas Hardye School, Dorset, England, and am doing the topic “animals before a natural disaster.” Would you give me your opinions and a little information on whether animal behavior could be used to predict natural disasters like earthquakes, perhaps in low-income countries that can't afford more modern technology?

A: Thank you for an intriguing question. The conventional wisdom is that wild animals can instinctively detect impending natural disasters, such as upcoming earthquakes and floods. Even people know that if it keeps raining, flooding will probably occur, so no mystery there. However, some animals are probably more sensitive to earth tremors than people are and may be aware of an earthquake before us. Whether any of the early warning signals from animal behavior preceding an earthquake would be useful to people is doubtful.

Some animals clearly have superpowers that exceed anything people can do naturally. Bats and dolphins can hear ultrasonic sounds; duckbill platypuses and knifefishes can detect electrical impulses created by a prey animal’s muscular activity; some birds and possibly sea turtles can navigate using the magnetic field from the North Pole. Wondrous as these traits may be, none are early detection systems for natural disasters.

I do not doubt that many animals can detect the early tremors of an earthquake before we can, which means they have the opportunity to react sooner. But what do animal behaviors tell us? How is an animal fleeing danger different from a person running for an exit during a fire? To credit wildlife with a reasoned response to impending danger is problematic. Following the Yellowstone National Park earthquake this June, I heard tales about how grizzly bears and wolves "predicted" it hours before it happened. Nice story, but accounts of wildlife predicting natural disasters have flaws.

First, the storytellers’ implication is that the animals sensed the upcoming disaster and this early detection system allowed them to take action to save themselves. Most animals have a fight or flight response when facing danger. As you can’t fight an earthquake, the choices are to hunker down or run. Do animals know exactly where to go during an earthquake? Are they simply doing what we would do once we’re aware of an approaching disaster? Run. I’ve also heard people say that dogs began barking before an earthquake hit their town. If I used that metric in my neighborhood, I would be expecting earthquakes every day.

Another problem with these seemingly clairvoyant animals is that their psychic powers are often based on behaviors people recall after the event. Some animal behaviors happen frequently but are not remembered unless an earthquake or tsunami follows. For example, someone seeing a skunk cross the road probably wouldn’t wonder why the skunk was crossing the road. But if an earthquake shook the area five minutes later, the person might conclude the skunk was making a preemptive move. If so, how did the skunk know which way to go?

Antelope have been reported running inland to get away from a tsunami. Understandably. Running inland from shoreline to forest, which would also be on higher ground, is completely natural and not at all mystical. Any animal able to do so would run away from the water. The same with sensing a trembling earth. But their reactions give no guidance for people.

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 before the fact. But how to turn this behavior into an early warning system for humans is equivocal. The animals offer no lessons for us regarding what to do in case of earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disasters. They provide little guidance of what might befall us or where we should seek safety. They just get to be frightened a few seconds before the rest of us.

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