Peña: Can animals predict earthquakes?

I just got into my car when the Earth shook. I thought there was something wrong with the vehicle so I got out to check. It was then that I realized the ground is shaking. It’s a powerful earthquake that lasted for several seconds! Last July 27 was an unforgettable day, especially for the people of Abra.

Until now, there’s no reliable method or instrument that can accurately predict the occurrence of an earthquake. Can animals sense the impending danger hours in advance?

There are anecdotes claiming they can. Allegedly, animals behave strangely before an earthquake. In the Chinese city of Haicheng, rats and snakes appeared "frozen" on the roads in December 1974. Then in the start of February 1975, reports of this type increased greatly. Cows and horses looked restless and agitated. Rats appeared "drunk", chickens refused to enter their coops and geese frequently took to flight. On February 4, 1975, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck city.

According to the United States Geological Service (USGS), the earliest reference to unusual animal behavior prior to a significant earthquake is from Greece in 373 BC. Rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes reportedly left their homes and headed for safety several days before a destructive earthquake. In Japan, folklore says that uncommon appearances of deep-sea fish are an earthquake precursor.

The unusual animal behavior seconds before humans feel an earthquake can be explained. Very few humans notice the smaller P wave that travels the fastest from the earthquake source and arrives before the larger S wave. But many animals with more keen senses are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives. Note the difference is just seconds before the earthquake. Stories of animals sensing an earthquake several hours or days before it occurs have yet to be scientifically proven. There is a research on this though.

In an international cooperation project, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz/Radolfzell and the Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, have investigated whether cows, sheep, and dogs can actually detect early signs of earthquakes. To do so, they attached sensors to the animals in an earthquake-prone area in Northern Italy and recorded their movements over several months.

The movement data show that the animals were unusually restless in the hours before the earthquakes. The closer the animals were to the epicenter of the impending quake, the earlier they started behaving unusually. It is still unclear how animals can sense impending earthquakes. Animals may sense the ionization of the air caused by the large rock pressures in earthquake zones with their fur. It is also conceivable that animals can smell gases released from quartz crystals before an earthquake.

More research is needed to prove that animals can indeed be used to predict earthquakes. If proven to be true, many lives will be saved.


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