Toads have a bad rap. To call someone a “toad” is generally an insult, meaning they’re not only ugly, but also stupid, foolish, or rude, according to Urban Dictionary.
But according to the BBC, what they lack in looks and reputation, common toads more than make up for in usefulness. At least when it comes to predicting seismic activity by as much as a few days before an earthquake (far outdoing humans, we might add, who have yet to predict seismic activity despite all kinds of fancy machines.)
Biologists reported in the Journal of Zoology that a population of toads abandoned their breeding colony three days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila in Italy last year, prompting researchers to conclude that somehow the amphibians sensed impending doom. What’s more surprising is that the group left even though their colony was almost forty-six miles from the quake’s epicenter.
Scientists have been hard pressed to figure out how animals are able to sense earthquakes, mostly because the unpredictability of them (for mere humans, anyway) means that by the time the quake happens, it’s too late to identify those species that were able to anticipate it.
But, one biologist happened to be studying the group of toads mentioned above around the time when the quake struck. Her research, gathered in a twenty-nine-day period leading up to and after the quake on April 6, 2009, meant that she was able to note the toads’ odd behavior. Five days before the quake, the population of male toads plummeted 96 percent, despite the active spawning season.
The biologist studying the toads says she believes they fled to higher ground, possibly to seek shelter from falling rocks, landslides and flooding. This even goes beyond what many observed immediately prior to the 2004 tsunami that struck the coasts of India and Sri Lanka when animals fled to higher ground or demonstrated peculiar behavior.
“Our study is one of the first to document animal behavior before, during, and after an earthquake,” said Dr. Rachel Grant told the BBC.
Still, it’s unclear just exactly how the toads sensed the seismic activity. Since their mass departure coincided with disruptions in the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the earth’s atmosphere (the ionosphere), biologists say it could be linked to the release of radon gas caused by the disruption.
“Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early warning system,” Dr. Grant tells the BBC.
We’re a long way from being able to predict earthquakes ourselves, but could this mean that we might soon be able to implement some kind of toad-assisted early-warning system for earthquakes? Toads might just redeem themselves yet.
By Darragh Worland for Tonic