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Sixth Sense: Can Animals Predict Natural Disasters?

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I like to think of myself as a pretty intuitive person, but no matter how readily I believe I can tell when an event or a relationship has gone awry, my cat always seems to be one step ahead of me. Whenever a major rainstorm is about to hit, he becomes especially clingy a few hours beforehand, prowling around underfoot and distracting me with whiny meows. And the last time a palpable earthquake happened in San Francisco, he proved his suitability for a career as a seismologist by acting skittish and hiding for a good eight hours before I felt the first tremors. 


His keen instincts often catch me by surprise; I mean, any living thing whose version of ecstasy is discovering scraps of raw chicken that have fallen onto the kitchen floor doesn’t seem like the most sophisticated creature at first glance. But I’ve realized that I may need to start giving my feline friend more credit. As it turns out, many scientists have based their careers on investigating whether animals possess a “sixth sense” that enables them to foresee natural disasters.  


By Land or by Sea
As early as 373 BC, Greek historians recorded accounts of animals’ acting strangely before an earthquake. According to their descriptions, rats, snakes, and weasels all staged a mass exodus from the city of Helice in the days preceding a massive quake there. In the two-plus millennia since that time, many similar instances have occurred. For example, shortly before a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Chinese city of Haicheng on February 4, 1975, officials evacuated the area. They based their decision primarily on the fact that thousands of Haicheng residents had observed increasingly unusual activity among all kinds of animals—including horses, cows, pigs, dogs, and cats—beginning as early as two months before the quake. 


In the three days before February 4, even more bizarre events occurred: the ground temperature increased, rats appeared suddenly in the region, and snakes emerged prematurely from hibernation, only to freeze to death. Of the three million residents of the area that the Haicheng earthquake affected, only 2,041 people were killed and 27,538 were injured, compared with a potential 150,000 had the city not been evacuated. Many people credit the region’s animals for saving these lives.


Animals’ seeming hyperawareness of changes in their environment isn’t limited to land-based events, though. The Indian Ocean tsunami that decimated parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa in 2004 killed nearly 280,000 people, yet virtually no animal deaths were recorded in Sri Lanka after the incident, despite the fact that the surging seas sent floodwater two miles inland to the largest wildlife preserve there, Yala National Park, which houses elephants, jackals, crocodiles, leopards, and deer. Tourists and employees who were in the park that day perished in the tsunami, but, as conservationist Debbie Martyr pointed out in the BBC News, “wild animals in particular are extremely sensitive. They’ve got extremely good hearing and they [probably] heard this flood coming in the distance. There would have been vibration, and there may also have been changes in the air pressure [that would] have alerted animals and made them move to wherever they felt safer.”


Martyr’s explanation touches on the two most popular theories about why animals seem so attuned to nature in the days or hours leading up to a cataclysmic event: either they can feel changes in the earth’s vibrations or they can detect the drop in air pressure that precedes a storm. In 2005, the Sun-Sentinel published an article about several different types of animals that appeared to demonstrate the latter ability when facing hurricanes in Florida. For example, Mote Marine Laboratory scientists in Sarasota believe that an awareness of decreasing barometric pressure was what caused eight sharks the scientists had tagged in nearby Pine Island Sound to flee abruptly for the open ocean twelve hours before Hurricane Charley hit in 2004. The following month, University of Florida biologist Thomas Emmel witnessed butterflies hiding in the university’s rainforest a few hours before Hurricane Jeanne reached Gainesville. Their sudden flight led him to speculate that organs similar to eardrums on the butterflies’ abdomens alerted them to seek shelter when they sensed the air pressure diminishing. 


The Great Divide
Despite these convincing examples, the scientific community remains at odds over whether animals can reliably predict natural disasters. One wildlife biologist who supports the idea is Frank Mazzotti of the University of Florida, whom the 2005 Sun-Sentinel article quoted as saying, “It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a hurricane, a fire, or an earthquake. [Animals] apparently sense these things before humans can do that … It’s likely a combination of smell, vibrations, and pressure. They start moving away from danger before humans pick it up.” 


British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who studied animals’ early responses to major earthquakes in California, Turkey, and Greece in the 1990s, discovered that dogs, cats, and birds all acted out of the ordinary before the initial tremors began. Like Mazzotti, Sheldrake is so certain of the connection between animal and seismic activity that, as National Geographic News reported in 2003, he wants to design a Web site that people can send emails to when they’ve seen animals behaving bizarrely. Working in conjunction with other seismological monitoring tools, the site would be linked to a computer that could track the senders’ locations; theoretically, a flurry of emails arriving from one specific area could indicate that an earthquake was on its way. 


The United States Geological Survey (USGS), on the other hand, begs to differ. The “Earthquake Facts & Earthquake Fantasy” section of the organization’s Web site 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.” 


Supersensors
Whether animals sense natural disasters before they happen or merely feel the physical effects of these events before humans do remains undetermined. But no matter how this debate pans out, many creatures do undeniably possess preternatural powers of detection and emergency response. All I know is, my home’s proximity to both the ocean and the San Andreas Fault means that I’m constantly on the lookout for signs of earthquakes and tsunamis. I might not be able to swim hundreds of miles out to sea to avoid a tidal wave, the way those sharks in Florida did, but what I can do is pay attention to my cat’s behavior. The moment I see the hair stand up on his neck as he dives under the nearest piece of furniture, I’m grabbing him and my disaster-preparedness kit and sprinting for higher ground.

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