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Animals – natural disaster detectors?

 | July 11, 2012

Researches show that the elephants, leopards and monkeys populating the park were able to sense the danger well in advance and flee to safety.


There will always be those who believe that animals can detect signs of an impending natural disaster and those who shrug it off as pure hogwash.

Yet we cannot discount that when the earthquake and tsunami of Dec 26, 2004 hit Sri Lanka, no report of mass animal deaths was recorded by wildlife officials at the Yala National Park there.

Researchers believe that the elephants, leopards and monkeys populating the park were able to sense the danger well in advance and flee to safety.

Conservationist Debbie Martyr when speaking to BBC News about this said, “Wild animals in particular are extremely sensitive. They’ve got extremely good hearing and they [probably] heard this flood coming in from a distance. There would have been vibration, and there may also have been changes in the air pressure [that would] have alerted them and made them move to wherever they felt safer.”

This does make sense. For an animal to survive in the wild and avoid being killed by predators or drowned in a flood, its senses must be acute enough to pick out minute changes in sound, vibration and smell. Wild cats have a very keen sense of sight allowing them to hunt even in the dead of night.

Like all theories that must be proven before it can be officially accepted, scientists are studying the abilities of animals as society’s early warning bells to natural disasters.

While we await more conclusive evidence, there’s nothing to stop us from recounting past instances when strange animal behaviour seemed to have a correlation with natural disasters.

  • In 373 BC, Greek historians reported that rats, snakes and weasels moved away in droves from the city of Helice in the days before a massive earthquake struck.
  • In 1755, famed philosopher Immanuel Kant witnessed a frenzied emergence of earthworms from the ground in southeast Spain. Eight days later, a devastating earthquake struck Portugal.
  • In 1966, the community of Parkfield in California was overrun by rattlesnakes fleeing the surrounding hills. Two days later, an earthquake struck.
  • In 1975, officials from Haicheng in China made the life-saving decision to evacuate the city’s 90,000 population after observing strange behaviour in wildlife and livestock there. Shortly after, a massive earthquake hit.
  • Seismologists in Guangxi Province, China noted that snakes monitored in enclosures displayed erratic behaviour, flinging their bodies against the walls before an earthquake occurred. Scientists believe that snakes are especially sensitive to subtle vibrations triggered by an earthquake even up to 120 hours before it happens.
  • In 2001, a large community of cats split the scene 12 hours before an earthquake shook Seattle, Washington.
  • In 2004, Mote Marine Laboratory scientists noted that eight sharks the scientists had tagged in nearby Pine Island Sound fled abruptly for the open ocean 12 hours before Hurricane Charley hit in 2004.
  • In 2004, University of Florida biologist Thomas Emmel witnessed butterflies hiding in the university’s rainforest a few hours before Hurricane Jeanne unleashed its fury on Gainesville.

Despite these instances, the jury is still out on whether animals, wild and domestic, can accurately detect impending natural disasters. The ones who have slept through fires, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes are certainly casting a negligible sense of doubt as to whether animals can be relied upon despite their keen senses.






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