Can Animals Predict Earthquakes and Natural Disasters?

Many stories exist of animals, including household pets, acting strangely before a big environmental event, such as an earthquake.  For example, there have been reports of dogs in India barking wildly and running through the streets immediately before a large earthquake was felt in the Gujarat region.  Other reports stated that the night and day before the 2001 earthquake stray dogs throughout different villages refused to eat any of the food that had been left out for them.  Additionally, some have noted the low number of animal casualties during and after events like tsunamis. One of the most heavily documented cases of this was during the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004.  Before the tsunami, elephants were seen running for higher ground, flamingos collectively left their breeding grounds near the coast, and both dogs and zoo animals refused to leave shelter. There was a fairly high human mortality rate due to the sudden approach of the tsunami however, most animals seemed unharmed by the large waves that caused over 50,000 human deaths in multiple countries.  One official from Yala National Park pointed out that one of the most heavily affected areas, that was home to over 130 different species, only had two known animal casualties, two water buffalos. But, is there any scientific evidence to explain these cases, or definitively prove that animals contain the inherent ability to predict when an extreme weather event is going to occur?

Many scientists say that this is a difficult question to answer because the observation of animal behavior directly preceding the events is often spotty and unreliable. One study, conducted by seismologists at the German Research Center for Geosciences, that looked at over 700 cases of strange animal behavior before an earthquake, found that many observations were insufficient due to inconsistencies and could not be properly examined for research. This is also a hard phenomenon to test, because of the unpredictable nature of the weather events.  While there is no concrete evidence to prove that animals have the ability to predict future weather, there are scientific explanations to many of the unusual behaviors witnessed by many before a big storm or earthquake.

The simplest answer is that animals are able to sense the micro-tremors that occur before the large tremors that can be felt by humans.  The study from the German Research Center of Geosciences noted that there was a large number of instances where behavioral changes of animals started at similar times as the foreshocks that come before earthquakes.  With this ability to feel an earthquake before their human counterparts, it is understandable that many would believe that these animals contain some sixth sense for predicting these events. This ability to feel tremors earlier may also be the explanation for animals fleeing to higher ground immediately before tsunamis caused by distant earthquakes in an ocean.

Other instances of animals reacting preemptively to natural disasters are a little more complicated.   One interesting case of an animal species being able to detect an oncoming tropical storm or hurricane is that of sharks living off the coast of Florida.  Researchers at the University of Miami have been tracking the behavior of sharks in the area through an electronic tagging system. This system is able to monitor water conditions while also tracking the shark’s movements.  They have found significant evidence to support the idea that sharks often swim to deeper levels in the ocean before the approach of the more intense tropical storms. Some marine biologists state that these patterns are proof that sharks are able to sense minute changes in water pressure and temperature.  Both changes would be indicative of an oncoming storm and, by being so in tune with their surrounding environment, these sharks are able to sense early on that a storm is forming and approaching.

Similar to the sharks, birds have also been believed to respond to the environmental changes that occur before storms.  Scientist have proven that birds can sense changes in air pressure to predict oncoming storms and subsequently seek shelter or leave the area before the weather has a chance to get worse.  In fact, birds possess an evolutional tool known as the Vitali Organ or the paratympanic organ. This organ is a special middle ear that is very sensitive to changes in the atmosphere and functions like a warning system for when weather conditions change.

Other instances of animals reacting strangely in the moments before storms include various account of worms coming out of the ground before heavy rainfall and flooding occurs.  This behavior is actually because the worms are fleeing the rising groundwater, which always rises before flooding. Many cases like this that are reported can be explained by an animal’s ability to feel changes in their environment much faster than humans.  Many animals have adapted to their particular environment, with ways of detecting changes that we as humans are often oblivious to without the assistance of technology. In a world where humans are thought to be at the top of the hierarchy of beings, it is marvelous to think about all the ways that animals surpass our knowledge and abilities.


Sources: Brain Behaviour and Evolution, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Current Biology, LiveScience, National Geographic News, Profesor Motoji Ikeya, University of Miami Shark Research and Conservation Program