Apr
26
2018

 

Can animals predict natural disasters?

A lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that they can. Many people claim that their dogs or cats behaved oddly just prior to an earthquake.

But despite the abundance of such assertions, a recent study suggests that animals have no real predictive ability when it comes earthquakes. The study, which was published last week in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, examined previous claims by people who insisted that their pets or farm animals demonstrated the ability to predict an earthquake before any actual rumbling was felt.

These so-called animal predictions are called “precursors.”

Researchers reviewed more than 700 records of claimed animal precursors related to 160 earthquakes and collected reports on potential earthquake predictions across 130 species, from elephants to silkworms. Most of the reports were anecdotes rather than experimental studies, and the majority came from three major events: the 2010 Darfield earthquake in New Zealand, the 1984 Nagano-ken Seibu earthquake in Japan, and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy.

The researchers quickly found that most of the claims lacked any rigorous scientific data to back them up. Many were little more than people claiming their animals were acting weird before disaster struck.

To make things even more unclear, the timeline of the alleged strange behavior varied wildly, from months to mere seconds prior to the earthquake itself. Further weakening the connection is the fact that many of the claims were single observations rather than behavior tracked over time.

In short, the researchers say the small amount of actual data that does exist regarding animals and earthquakes is muddied with countless unsubstantiated claims that have little to no scientific value. Nevertheless, the scientists note that earthquakes might indeed trigger some response in animals prior to the rumbling but add that nothing can be proven with the current available data.

So, can your pet predict an earthquake?

The answer appears to be . . . maybe.

“The animals may sense seismic waves generated by foreshocks,” said lead author Heiko Woith, PhD, a hydrogeologist with the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany. “Another option could be secondary effects triggered by the foreshocks, like changes in groundwater or release of gases from the ground, which might be sensed by the animals.”

Of course, proving that any of this might be true, Woith said, would require long-term observation. And given the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of earthquakes, that may be easier said than done.

The bottom line appears to be that people, including scientists, generally think it’s likely your pets know when something is up. That said, whether you want to duck and cover the next time your dog starts giving you the stink eye for no apparent reason is entirely up to you.

Photo credit: © iStock/deepspace

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