So long and thanks for all the fish.

Happy hump day everyone!

“It’s an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on earth, man had always assumed that he was the most intelligent species occupying the planet instead of the third most intelligent. The second most intelligent creatures were, of course, dolphins who curiously enough had long known of the impending destruction of the planet earth. They had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger, but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits so they eventually decided they would leave us by their own means. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backward somersault through a hoop while whistling The Star Spangled Banner but in fact the message was this: so long and thanks for all the fish.” (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy)

Keep this witty quote in mind as I continue… (as you’ll get to know, I jump at the chance to reference Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s series in general)

I keep remembering this story about a kid and his dad who took a trip up to the mountains: The kid gets this weird feeling, almost like something bad is going to happen, then notices that animals are starting to leave; that’s when the kid decides that they should leave too. They get away from the mountain and then BAM, avalanche. For the life of me, though, I can’t find the story anywhere and now I’m starting to question whether I made it up or not.

Anyway, the point of that story is that the kid picked up on cues from the animals; he noticed that they were acting strange and left, and he decided he and his dad should too. Which brings me to today’s question: can animals predict disaster?

Destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Recorded examples of animals fleeing pre-disaster:

  • Some animals are known to react to changes in the weather. Worms, for example, flee rising groundwater and birds are sensitive to air pressure changes (i.e. they can sense approaching storms). Also, sharks in Florida were observed fleeing to deeper water before hurricanes.
  • Greece, 373 BC: The Greek historian Thucydides writes about animals including snakes and rats fleeing the city of Helike just before it was destroyed by an earthquake.
  • Tokyo, 1923: Catfish were seen jumping out of the water shortly before an earthquake. 
  • Haicheng (China), 1975: The city of one million was evacuated days before a devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake; strange animal behaviour was among the reasons or the evacuation.
  • Indian Ocean, 2004: A 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused an enormous tsunami that affected many countries in southeastern Asia. Behavioural changes in both wild and domestic animals were observed before the quake. It resulted in over 200,000 human casualties but no mass animal deaths.
  • Florida, 2004: Just before Hurricane Jeanne hit, butterflies in a conservatory wedged themselves under rocks and hid in tree hollows.
  • Italy, 2009: British researchers studying common toads at a breeding site in central Italy observed a mass exodus of the creatures 5 days before a 6.3 magnitude quake killed 150 people and caused heavy damage to L’Aquila. The toad population returned to normal after the last aftershock.

Toad exodus!

Do animals have a sixth sense?

  • Many scientists are still skeptical of the idea that animals can predict disaster; they don’t believe that it is a scientific adaptation and there is not enough hard data to prove otherwise.
  • One theory is that animals can feel vibrations in the earth before humans; another suggests that animals (like the Italian toads) can sense pre-seismic activity such as the release of gases and charged particles.
  • Migratory animals such as some birds and sea mammals are theorized to be sensitive to changes in the magnetic field that that affect their ability to navigate.
  • Animals may also pick up on the behaviour of other animals.
  • Animals may not understand what’s happening but can pick up on all the changes listed above which could then trigger an instinct to move to a safer area.

The Moken people of the Andaman Sea.

Can humans predict disaster?

  • Charlotte King predicted the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in May 1980; she was 12 minutes off. She could hear extremely low sound frequencies associated with pre-seismic activity.
  • Jim Berkland predicts earthquakes with an 80% accuracy rate (i.e. San Francisco Bay quake, October 1989), but does not posses the natural “talent” King does. He takes tidal flood tables, the alignment of the sun and moon, and animal behaviour into consideration when making his predictions.
  • The nomadic and sea based Moken people who inhabit the islands and coasts of the Andaman Sea and the West coast of Thailand would have been affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean if they had not noticed the unusual behaviour of the waves.

So as of now we know that animals are sensitive to changes in the environment that occur prior to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Their behaviour, however, is not considered a reliable indicator to an upcoming disaster because there is not enough hard data available to prove it. The potential is there, though, and I’m looking forward to reading about advancements in animal weather forecasting in the future!

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