Can Our Furry Friends Sense Oncoming Earthquakes?

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

Can Our Furry Friends Sense Oncoming Earthquakes?

January 10, 2021

Animals can sense earthquakes and other disasters. Scientists conducted in-depth studies to confirm the claims.

If you live with pets or on a farm or even work in an animal rescue shelter, you definitely would have heard from several people how animals have a ‘sixth sense’ to predict future disasters accurately. In fact, it is quite common to see animals suddenly have erratic and worrying dispositions right before events like a storm, earthquake, or other disasters.

Your dog may start whining and running around your house, while your cats may scratch surfaces and hide in tough to reach corners. If you have cattle, you may suddenly observe their army march away somewhere else instead of their afternoon rumination session.

Whatever might be the reason, many eyewitnesses say that when animals exhibit such worrying behaviour, a disaster often strikes. But for scientists, it was only anecdotal evidence, which is usually a big NO for the scientific community. Since little to no research was done on this claim, researchers sought to find if animals can sense disasters or is it merely a myth.

Study on Farm Animals in Earthquake-prone Regions of Italy

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Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany, and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour, University of Konstanz, created a research team. They aimed to investigate this suspected ability of animals. The study was conducted on an Italian farm in an earthquake-prone region. Six cows, five sheep, and two dogs were the selected participants for the task.

Devices known as ‘accelerometers’ were attached to the collars of these animals. As per eyewitness records, these animals exhibited unusual behaviour before an earthquake. Researchers recorded their movements and behaviour continuously for many months. According to local authorities, around 18,000 minor and significant earthquakes were reported in this Italian region during the test phase.

At least twelve earthquakes with a four and higher strength on the Richter scale had shaken up the area. Scientists later categorised the earthquakes that rattled up the area around and on the farm. These were the tremors that held statistical relevance to the research. These included powerful earthquakes around 28 km away and the many minor tremors whose epicentres were near the farm.

Animal's Behavioural Data

However, the scientists chose a different approach. Rather than only seeking out erratic behaviours before the earthquakes, they also sought more specific and systematic action. They initially noted down all the animals’ abnormal behavioural changes according to the objective and statistical criteria.

In this way, we ensure that not only we establish correlations retrospectively but also that we do have a pattern that can be used for prognostications.

- Martin Wikelski, Director, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior Tweet

The animals’ data was measured as each farm animal (this indicates their activity levels). This acceleration was then studied with the help of statistical models derived from financial econometrics. Apart from this, researchers also considered other disruptions like natural changes in animal activity over the day.

The Results

Animals can, indeed, predict earthquakes to a ‘certain’ degree. Researchers finally observed the animals’ abnormal behavioural patterns for at least 20 hours before an earthquake hit the farm.

Wikelski explained, “The nearer the animals were to the epicentre of the imminent shock, the earlier they changed their behaviour. This is precisely what you would expect when physical variations occur more frequently at the epicentre of the impending earthquake. Collectively, the animals appear to show skills that are not so easily seen on an individual level.”

The researchers were taken aback by the animals’ behaviour. It looks like mum knows best, after all. However, it is still a mystery to other researchers regarding how these animals can predict it.

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Because every animal responds separately in size, speed and according to species, the animal data mirror the data on heterogeneous financial investors.

- Winfried Pohlmeier, Professor, University of Konstanz, and Prime Investigator, Centre for Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour Tweet

Unfathomed Inroads into Animal Behaviours

Scientists assume that maybe animals can sense the ionisation in the air caused due to enormous rock pressures in earthquake-prone zones with their fur. It also is possible that animals can smell the gases released from quartz crystals hours before an earthquake.

Whatever be the reason, animals do have many undiscovered superpowers. Apart from detecting diseases, helping in fixing water leakages, being a source of income for humans, and being the most loving, loyal, adorable companions, maybe years down the line, animals may join the human force in predicting major disasters. Until then, go ahead and have a cuddle session with your pet.

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