How did the animals know?

Shortly before the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., the animals in the National Zoo started freaking out.   So did lots of people’s housepets, with sleepy cats suddenly jumping up and heading for the hills just prior to the quake.  Scientists can’t figure out how they knew:

Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?

Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend. There has been talk over the years about mysterious electromagnetic fields generated by rupturing faults. There has been speculation about sounds inaudible to humans, and subtle tilting in rock formations, and the release of vapors that people can’t smell.But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.

The zoo documented a broad range of animal behavior before, during and after the tremor that began in central Virginia and shook much of the eastern United States. For example, a gorilla, Mandara, shrieked and grabbed her baby, Kibibi, racing to the top of a climbing structure just seconds before the ground began to shake dramatically. Two other apes — an orangutan, Kyle, and a gorilla, Kojo — already had dropped their food and skedaddled to higher turf.

The 64 flamingos seemed to sense the tumult a number of seconds in advance as well, clustering together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit. One of the zoo’s elephants made a low-pitched noise as if to communicate with two other elephants.

And red-ruffed lemurs emitted an alarm cry a full 15 minutes before the temblor, the zoo said.

During the quake, the zoo grounds were filled with howls and cries. The snakes, normally inert in the middle of the day, writhed and slithered. Beavers stood on their hind legs and then jumped into a pond. Murphy the Komodo dragon ran for cover. Lions resting outside suddenly stood up and stared at their building as the walls shook.

Damai, a Sumatran tiger, leaped as if startled but quickly settled down. Some animals remained agitated for the rest of the day, wouldn’t eat and didn’t go to sleep on their usual schedule. . . .

The belief that strange animal behavior is a precursor to earthquakes goes back to antiquity. A recent scientific study suggested that toads fled to higher ground days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. In the most famous case of modern times, snakes and frogs emerged from their holes in 1975 in the dead of winter several weeks before a magnitude-7.3 earthquake in Haicheng, China (the odd animal behavior helped persuade officials to evacuate the city just before the tremor).

via Zoo mystery: How did apes and birds know quake was coming? – The Washington Post.

One explanation has to do with the so-called p-wave, a faint foreshock that precedes the big s-wave in an earthquake.  This is imperceptible to human beings, but maybe animals can pick it up.  The p-wave hit 15 seconds before the big 5.8-on-the-Richter-scale shock.  That would explain some of the animal behavior.  But some of the zoo animals started panicking a full 15 minutes before the quake.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    Forgive me, but I’m dubious. Were these animals caught on film acting unusually active and “freaking out,” or are we relying on the descriptions of people after the fact? Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely convinced that the animals would be aware seconds, perhaps quite a few seconds, before humans, and I don’t doubt the mysterious behavior recorded before some historical earthquakes. This just doesn’t seem like one of those cases. I envision a crack team of reporters descending upon the zoo with the burning question: Did the animals know? Why, yes. A snake slithered, a beaver jumped into the water, and the lemurs let out a shriek. What more evidence do you need?

    Sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all those things at the zoo on the non-earthquake days that I have visited.

  • Dan Kempin

    Forgive me, but I’m dubious. Were these animals caught on film acting unusually active and “freaking out,” or are we relying on the descriptions of people after the fact? Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely convinced that the animals would be aware seconds, perhaps quite a few seconds, before humans, and I don’t doubt the mysterious behavior recorded before some historical earthquakes. This just doesn’t seem like one of those cases. I envision a crack team of reporters descending upon the zoo with the burning question: Did the animals know? Why, yes. A snake slithered, a beaver jumped into the water, and the lemurs let out a shriek. What more evidence do you need?

    Sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all those things at the zoo on the non-earthquake days that I have visited.

  • fws

    So that explains my bouts of anxiety when I used to live in southern california. And all that time I thought it was just some psychological condition. Or that maybe I am a bit crazy. Who would have known? And I would get jumpy months or even years before a quake would it.

    Better than those animals!

  • fws

    So that explains my bouts of anxiety when I used to live in southern california. And all that time I thought it was just some psychological condition. Or that maybe I am a bit crazy. Who would have known? And I would get jumpy months or even years before a quake would it.

    Better than those animals!

  • WebMonk

    Right on, Dan. It’s a phenomenon that is very widespread, but I’ve never seen solid studies that have actually tested this. There are lots of studies showing animals may react to, or even use, things like infrasounds, but no studies showing they react to it immediately before an earthquake.

    One thing that makes me a bit doubtful is that infrasounds are used to detect earthquakes already, and I’ve never seen any solid evidence of animals reacting in a significant and distinctly recognizable at the same time earthquake sensors are picking up infrasounds from an earthquake.

    Not saying it doesn’t happen, but all the “evidence” I’ve ever seen for this is based on after-the-fact, non-rigorous observations. It’s in the plausible-but-not-proven category to me.

  • WebMonk

    Right on, Dan. It’s a phenomenon that is very widespread, but I’ve never seen solid studies that have actually tested this. There are lots of studies showing animals may react to, or even use, things like infrasounds, but no studies showing they react to it immediately before an earthquake.

    One thing that makes me a bit doubtful is that infrasounds are used to detect earthquakes already, and I’ve never seen any solid evidence of animals reacting in a significant and distinctly recognizable at the same time earthquake sensors are picking up infrasounds from an earthquake.

    Not saying it doesn’t happen, but all the “evidence” I’ve ever seen for this is based on after-the-fact, non-rigorous observations. It’s in the plausible-but-not-proven category to me.

  • Joe

    I don’t know much about earthquakes – I grew up north of Green Bay. But I grew up on and around farms. Animals certainly have a foreknowledge of weather conditions. So I would not be surprised that they would be able to detect an earthquake before people.

  • Joe

    I don’t know much about earthquakes – I grew up north of Green Bay. But I grew up on and around farms. Animals certainly have a foreknowledge of weather conditions. So I would not be surprised that they would be able to detect an earthquake before people.

  • Dan Kempin

    Joe, #4,

    Foreknowledge . . . but not predestination, right?

  • Dan Kempin

    Joe, #4,

    Foreknowledge . . . but not predestination, right?

  • Kirk

    This is kind of a cool video showing a dog sensing an earthquake. She looks at the ground and then bolts from the room seconds before the quake hits.

  • Kirk

    This is kind of a cool video showing a dog sensing an earthquake. She looks at the ground and then bolts from the room seconds before the quake hits.

  • WebMonk

    Exactly Kirk, it’s that sort of “evidence” used. At best, the dog reacted two or three seconds before the earthquake’s hard shaking hit. At best.

    Before we start ascribing super-sensory faculties in animals to detect mysterious signals no one else has detected, we ought to consider that the dog was just faster to react to the first tremors than the people. That was in CA, after all – my relatives there don’t pay any attention to anything less than a 3.0.

    You can see the person in the chair behind the post react maybe a second after the dog bolts (to the dog or to the shaking), and then start to react more strongly (more certainly due to the shaking). At most there were three seconds between when the dog reacted and when the guy did. After three to four seconds you can see the guy emerging, already at a run, from behind the post.

    Conclusion – the dog has faster reflexes than the big dude.

  • WebMonk

    Exactly Kirk, it’s that sort of “evidence” used. At best, the dog reacted two or three seconds before the earthquake’s hard shaking hit. At best.

    Before we start ascribing super-sensory faculties in animals to detect mysterious signals no one else has detected, we ought to consider that the dog was just faster to react to the first tremors than the people. That was in CA, after all – my relatives there don’t pay any attention to anything less than a 3.0.

    You can see the person in the chair behind the post react maybe a second after the dog bolts (to the dog or to the shaking), and then start to react more strongly (more certainly due to the shaking). At most there were three seconds between when the dog reacted and when the guy did. After three to four seconds you can see the guy emerging, already at a run, from behind the post.

    Conclusion – the dog has faster reflexes than the big dude.

  • DonS

    It’s common knowledge here in CA that dogs and such generally will show anxiety seconds before a quake hits. I’ve always thought it was their keen hearing, and, as was noted in the article, their instinctive attentiveness to their surroundings. But 15 minutes? I’m dubious.

  • DonS

    It’s common knowledge here in CA that dogs and such generally will show anxiety seconds before a quake hits. I’ve always thought it was their keen hearing, and, as was noted in the article, their instinctive attentiveness to their surroundings. But 15 minutes? I’m dubious.

  • steve

    I’m going with some of the others here. A small foreshock might explain some of the perceived reactions but, I suspect this is more of a case of hindsight bias. “Hmm, yeah, come to think of it, those animals were acting a little funny!”

  • steve

    I’m going with some of the others here. A small foreshock might explain some of the perceived reactions but, I suspect this is more of a case of hindsight bias. “Hmm, yeah, come to think of it, those animals were acting a little funny!”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Just doubting what you don’t understand is not being open-minded. The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is staffed by better-than-usual experts. The article quotes the professionals at the zoo who recount the behavior they witnessed, refers to other examples of the phenomena, and cites scientific discussion of the problem.

    Here are some more detailed notes about the animal behavior both before and during the quake, from a Smithsonian press release: http://news.discovery.com/animals/earthquake-how-animals-reacted-110825.html

    On what grounds do you doubt the observations of these people who work with the animals every day and who could presumably distinguish between unusual behavior and what animals do everyday?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Just doubting what you don’t understand is not being open-minded. The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is staffed by better-than-usual experts. The article quotes the professionals at the zoo who recount the behavior they witnessed, refers to other examples of the phenomena, and cites scientific discussion of the problem.

    Here are some more detailed notes about the animal behavior both before and during the quake, from a Smithsonian press release: http://news.discovery.com/animals/earthquake-how-animals-reacted-110825.html

    On what grounds do you doubt the observations of these people who work with the animals every day and who could presumably distinguish between unusual behavior and what animals do everyday?

  • John

    I read an article a few years back about “sub-sonic” sound waves and how sounds lower than 4db cause anxiety and fear in humans. We can’t hear the sounds per se, but they affect our behavior. Incidentally, the article (I think it was a Popular Science article, but I can’t remember now) pointed out that these kinds of sounds are present in thunderstorms, and help explain some people’s irrational fear of storms. All that to say that I would not be surprised at all if animals had some kind of as-yet-undiscovered ability to sense coming earthquakes.

  • John

    I read an article a few years back about “sub-sonic” sound waves and how sounds lower than 4db cause anxiety and fear in humans. We can’t hear the sounds per se, but they affect our behavior. Incidentally, the article (I think it was a Popular Science article, but I can’t remember now) pointed out that these kinds of sounds are present in thunderstorms, and help explain some people’s irrational fear of storms. All that to say that I would not be surprised at all if animals had some kind of as-yet-undiscovered ability to sense coming earthquakes.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    What’s missing for me is an indication that any of this was truly unusual behavior, in any way unique to the earthquake experience.

    In general, our brains are designed to draw conclusions. When something weird happens, combined with something else unusual, we’re generally inclined to assume they’re related (e.g. new comet comes around, and several members of your family get sick).

    The thing is, our brains are also inclined to discard uncorrelated events. Say you’re a zookeeper at the ape house. One orangutan suddenly leaps up and makes an odd sound. You look around to see what’s the matter. You don’t see anything. A few minutes pass, and you never figure it out. Guess what? You won’t be recalling that incident very well in a few months. Ah, but if an earthquake were to happen shortly after that incident, it would be seared in your memory.

    So the question is: how many times do the reported behaviors occur without significant explanation, but go unremembered by the staff?

    Another reason to doubt the Smithsonian staff is that, while they’re experts at animals, they’re presumably not terribly experienced when it comes to earthquakes. It’s not hard to imagine that this is the first quake any of them have experienced while on the job. Now, California zookeepers would likely have more experience correlating animal behavior with tremors.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    What’s missing for me is an indication that any of this was truly unusual behavior, in any way unique to the earthquake experience.

    In general, our brains are designed to draw conclusions. When something weird happens, combined with something else unusual, we’re generally inclined to assume they’re related (e.g. new comet comes around, and several members of your family get sick).

    The thing is, our brains are also inclined to discard uncorrelated events. Say you’re a zookeeper at the ape house. One orangutan suddenly leaps up and makes an odd sound. You look around to see what’s the matter. You don’t see anything. A few minutes pass, and you never figure it out. Guess what? You won’t be recalling that incident very well in a few months. Ah, but if an earthquake were to happen shortly after that incident, it would be seared in your memory.

    So the question is: how many times do the reported behaviors occur without significant explanation, but go unremembered by the staff?

    Another reason to doubt the Smithsonian staff is that, while they’re experts at animals, they’re presumably not terribly experienced when it comes to earthquakes. It’s not hard to imagine that this is the first quake any of them have experienced while on the job. Now, California zookeepers would likely have more experience correlating animal behavior with tremors.

  • steve

    I don’t doubt “seconds” but I am suspicious of “minutes”. The article seems to treat them both the same but to me there is a world of difference between the two. Depending on the distance from the epicenter, seismic waves can be detected many seconds before most people feel anything. So I don’t doubt that a species that has to be much more in tune with changes in the environment for survival would feel an earthquake coming before humans would. That doesn’t mean they’re feeling it before the earthquake happened, but before the earthquake was noticed. Did they compare the exact time of the seismic activity at the zoo with the time of the seismic activity at the epicenter and both of those with the time that the animals were acting “strangely”?

    I know those folks are experts but the article is still just stating observations that use vague terms like “normally”. What is normal and abnormal and with what frequency do these animals exhibit abnormal behaviors that aren’t followed by an earthquake? It’s also worth noting that some animals didn’t act abnormally at all, like the giant pandas.

    Now, my own bias is that I believe some people want to believe that animals have mystical, superior powers that humans have somehow lost touch with. Others, understandably, just want to be able to predict earthquakes and hope figuring out how animals instinctively detect them may help in that endeavor. Both groups, I believe, read more into stories like this than the science really proves.

  • steve

    I don’t doubt “seconds” but I am suspicious of “minutes”. The article seems to treat them both the same but to me there is a world of difference between the two. Depending on the distance from the epicenter, seismic waves can be detected many seconds before most people feel anything. So I don’t doubt that a species that has to be much more in tune with changes in the environment for survival would feel an earthquake coming before humans would. That doesn’t mean they’re feeling it before the earthquake happened, but before the earthquake was noticed. Did they compare the exact time of the seismic activity at the zoo with the time of the seismic activity at the epicenter and both of those with the time that the animals were acting “strangely”?

    I know those folks are experts but the article is still just stating observations that use vague terms like “normally”. What is normal and abnormal and with what frequency do these animals exhibit abnormal behaviors that aren’t followed by an earthquake? It’s also worth noting that some animals didn’t act abnormally at all, like the giant pandas.

    Now, my own bias is that I believe some people want to believe that animals have mystical, superior powers that humans have somehow lost touch with. Others, understandably, just want to be able to predict earthquakes and hope figuring out how animals instinctively detect them may help in that endeavor. Both groups, I believe, read more into stories like this than the science really proves.

  • cattail

    All I know is that during the 1993 “Spring Break Quake” here in Oregon, my beagle slept through the whole thing–even afterwards when my daughter and I were running around the house exclaiming to each other and looking for damage.

  • cattail

    All I know is that during the 1993 “Spring Break Quake” here in Oregon, my beagle slept through the whole thing–even afterwards when my daughter and I were running around the house exclaiming to each other and looking for damage.

  • Tom Hering

    I have no doubt that the zoo animals, who do indeed possess strange powers, knew about the earthquake long before it happened. They, after all, are the ones who caused the earthquake – with those same strange powers – hoping to collapse the cages and walls that imprison them for man’s entertainment.

  • Tom Hering

    I have no doubt that the zoo animals, who do indeed possess strange powers, knew about the earthquake long before it happened. They, after all, are the ones who caused the earthquake – with those same strange powers – hoping to collapse the cages and walls that imprison them for man’s entertainment.

  • Dan Kempin

    cattail, #14, lol!

  • Dan Kempin

    cattail, #14, lol!

  • WebMonk

    Veith, I’m not sure you actually paid attention any of the articles you linked. Go through again, and pay attention. All except ONE instance recorded all happened in the seconds right before the quake, during the quake, or after.

    The ONLY instance of forewarning is a mention that the red ruffed lemurs sounded the alarm 15 minutes beforehand. ONE example. And while I’m not an expert on red ruffed lemurs, that example certainly sounds like it’s an after-the-fact association to me – something upset those lemurs and they started yelling and yipping especially loudly for a bit.

    Fifteen minutes later an earthquake hits, and THEN people associate those lemurs actions with the earthquake. When those lemurs start screaming at other times, there are a myriad of common explanations.

    Besides, it seems it was only the red ruffed lemurs that sensed this, if that’s what it actually was. What?!?! None of the other lemurs? None of the other primates? None of the other mammals? None of the other animals? Just the red ruffed lemurs??

    Uh huh.

    Dr. Veith, if you want to believe in red ruffed lemurs (and only red ruffed lemurs) with special super-sensitive, earthquake-sensing powers, go right ahead.

    Doubting what we don’t understand only because we don’t understand it is not being open-minded. Very true.

    What we’re doubting is some sort of mysterious sense that animals have, for which there is only very shaky, anecdotal evidence for which there are plenty of other more mundane explanations.

    Credulously swallowing every bit of sensationalized news fluff is not something to defend or promote. Use it for an interesting blog post, sure. Swallow it as valid “science”, no. You know the saying about how if you’re too open minded your brain falls out?

  • WebMonk

    Veith, I’m not sure you actually paid attention any of the articles you linked. Go through again, and pay attention. All except ONE instance recorded all happened in the seconds right before the quake, during the quake, or after.

    The ONLY instance of forewarning is a mention that the red ruffed lemurs sounded the alarm 15 minutes beforehand. ONE example. And while I’m not an expert on red ruffed lemurs, that example certainly sounds like it’s an after-the-fact association to me – something upset those lemurs and they started yelling and yipping especially loudly for a bit.

    Fifteen minutes later an earthquake hits, and THEN people associate those lemurs actions with the earthquake. When those lemurs start screaming at other times, there are a myriad of common explanations.

    Besides, it seems it was only the red ruffed lemurs that sensed this, if that’s what it actually was. What?!?! None of the other lemurs? None of the other primates? None of the other mammals? None of the other animals? Just the red ruffed lemurs??

    Uh huh.

    Dr. Veith, if you want to believe in red ruffed lemurs (and only red ruffed lemurs) with special super-sensitive, earthquake-sensing powers, go right ahead.

    Doubting what we don’t understand only because we don’t understand it is not being open-minded. Very true.

    What we’re doubting is some sort of mysterious sense that animals have, for which there is only very shaky, anecdotal evidence for which there are plenty of other more mundane explanations.

    Credulously swallowing every bit of sensationalized news fluff is not something to defend or promote. Use it for an interesting blog post, sure. Swallow it as valid “science”, no. You know the saying about how if you’re too open minded your brain falls out?

  • WebMonk

    John, yes, animals can sense infrasounds, and earthquakes can produce infrasounds. Both of these facts have long been known. Some animals, such as elephants actually utilize infrasounds to communicate.

    Here’s the rub.

    The quake travels faster through the ground than the sound waves through the air, so the quake arrives first – not possible to give anything advanced warning. The infrasounds can also travel through the ground, but guess what, they travel at the same speed (more or less) as the waves which are causing the infrasounds, thus arriving at the same time and again not capable of giving advanced warning.

    Animals could certainly be feeling tremors that people ignore, but that’s hardly some sort of mysterious sensory ability.

    The problem with studying something like this is that it’s REALLY hard to do because no one knows when an earthquake is going to happen. To do a study like this, scientists would need to set up some observation gear at a zoo (let’s say the San Diego zoo) and start recording animal behavior for however long it takes until the next quake hits. It could be many years before that happens.

    Then, you have to have people analyze the videos. Come up with objective metrics to quantify “normal” and “extraordinary” behavior. Then do all the statistical work.

    Summary – it ain’t cheap. I suspect there have been at least a couple attempts at this, probably on a minor (inexpensive) scale. It probably showed a null result, and so anyone who wants to get large-scale funding for something like that have the additional hurdle to cross – other smaller studies have already studied this and found nothing.

  • WebMonk

    John, yes, animals can sense infrasounds, and earthquakes can produce infrasounds. Both of these facts have long been known. Some animals, such as elephants actually utilize infrasounds to communicate.

    Here’s the rub.

    The quake travels faster through the ground than the sound waves through the air, so the quake arrives first – not possible to give anything advanced warning. The infrasounds can also travel through the ground, but guess what, they travel at the same speed (more or less) as the waves which are causing the infrasounds, thus arriving at the same time and again not capable of giving advanced warning.

    Animals could certainly be feeling tremors that people ignore, but that’s hardly some sort of mysterious sensory ability.

    The problem with studying something like this is that it’s REALLY hard to do because no one knows when an earthquake is going to happen. To do a study like this, scientists would need to set up some observation gear at a zoo (let’s say the San Diego zoo) and start recording animal behavior for however long it takes until the next quake hits. It could be many years before that happens.

    Then, you have to have people analyze the videos. Come up with objective metrics to quantify “normal” and “extraordinary” behavior. Then do all the statistical work.

    Summary – it ain’t cheap. I suspect there have been at least a couple attempts at this, probably on a minor (inexpensive) scale. It probably showed a null result, and so anyone who wants to get large-scale funding for something like that have the additional hurdle to cross – other smaller studies have already studied this and found nothing.

  • WebMonk

    I just realized that I sound pretty cranky in those last two posts.

    My apologies for that. I’m stuck at work at 6:15 on a Friday evening after a week that is clocking in at 55 hours so far and a day during which I haven’t had anything to eat (forgot my lunch at home and haven’t had a chance to leave to pick anything up), and I don’t see anything changing that suggests I will be leaving soon.

    I’m cranky. And bored. And hungry. Sorry for the harsh posts.

  • WebMonk

    I just realized that I sound pretty cranky in those last two posts.

    My apologies for that. I’m stuck at work at 6:15 on a Friday evening after a week that is clocking in at 55 hours so far and a day during which I haven’t had anything to eat (forgot my lunch at home and haven’t had a chance to leave to pick anything up), and I don’t see anything changing that suggests I will be leaving soon.

    I’m cranky. And bored. And hungry. Sorry for the harsh posts.

  • mike minter

    The big question is how did we as humans lose such a warning system in the “survival of the fittest ” theory? We must be devolving.
    Mike

  • mike minter

    The big question is how did we as humans lose such a warning system in the “survival of the fittest ” theory? We must be devolving.
    Mike

  • Melissa A

    I remember with the tsunami, animals knew and reacted prior to the hit- going to higher ground.

  • Melissa A

    I remember with the tsunami, animals knew and reacted prior to the hit- going to higher ground.

  • Michael

    Interesting that scientists think the animals know something ahead of time, but non-scientists are skeptical. In my experience scientists are the least likely to jump to conclusions. I thought this was already an accepted fact, especially after the big Tsunami:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0104_050104_tsunami_animals.html

  • Michael

    Interesting that scientists think the animals know something ahead of time, but non-scientists are skeptical. In my experience scientists are the least likely to jump to conclusions. I thought this was already an accepted fact, especially after the big Tsunami:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0104_050104_tsunami_animals.html

  • Duane

    I was sitting in my office when the quake happened and about 5 seconds into it I heard a low rumbling sound. The whole thing was a very strange experience. Who knows what is happening during a quake that we cannot see or hear?

  • Duane

    I was sitting in my office when the quake happened and about 5 seconds into it I heard a low rumbling sound. The whole thing was a very strange experience. Who knows what is happening during a quake that we cannot see or hear?

  • Ginnie

    I saw a video from a security camera in a building in Haiti when they had their huge earthquake. It shows a dog getting up and running away, people glancing at it (as if to try to figure out what startled it), and then the earth quake starting just seconds later. I believe that animals can sense these things. We’re about to get slammed by hurricane irene tomorrow, and the animals in the woods behind my house are going nuts today.

  • Ginnie

    I saw a video from a security camera in a building in Haiti when they had their huge earthquake. It shows a dog getting up and running away, people glancing at it (as if to try to figure out what startled it), and then the earth quake starting just seconds later. I believe that animals can sense these things. We’re about to get slammed by hurricane irene tomorrow, and the animals in the woods behind my house are going nuts today.

  • Matt

    Michael – I also recall the stories of the animals heading for the hills prior to the tsunami. It doesn’t seem all that fantastical to me that the animals have a keen awareness for when something is awry.

  • Matt

    Michael – I also recall the stories of the animals heading for the hills prior to the tsunami. It doesn’t seem all that fantastical to me that the animals have a keen awareness for when something is awry.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    You don’t have to believe that animals have psychic abilities to acknowledge a pattern of observations that is not limited to just this instance. Here is an account of a controlled, scientific study of toads that documented their abandoning their breeding grounds FIVE DAYS before a quake: http://www.livescience.com/6247-toads-anticipate-earthquakes.html

    China and Japan have been studying this a long time. Here is a survey of animal reactions in California, as well as an overview of research: http://animalsandearthquakes.com/survey.htm

    Of course if you apply David Hume’s critique of causality, all such observations can be doubted, interpreted as arbitrary correlations that only seem to be connected. That wreaks havoc with other empirical studies, of course. Remind me to use that in the next argument about global warming!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    You don’t have to believe that animals have psychic abilities to acknowledge a pattern of observations that is not limited to just this instance. Here is an account of a controlled, scientific study of toads that documented their abandoning their breeding grounds FIVE DAYS before a quake: http://www.livescience.com/6247-toads-anticipate-earthquakes.html

    China and Japan have been studying this a long time. Here is a survey of animal reactions in California, as well as an overview of research: http://animalsandearthquakes.com/survey.htm

    Of course if you apply David Hume’s critique of causality, all such observations can be doubted, interpreted as arbitrary correlations that only seem to be connected. That wreaks havoc with other empirical studies, of course. Remind me to use that in the next argument about global warming!

  • Captain Pedantic

    I live in Christchurch, New Zealand where 12 months ago we had a 7.1, and over 7000 aftershocks since then (one a 6.3 close to our city which devastated it and killed 182 people).

    So how have all the animals in our zoo and household etc been acting for the last 12 months?

    Normal… just normal. Then a shock hits and then they freak. Just like we do.
    You want scientific repeated data here you have it.

  • Captain Pedantic

    I live in Christchurch, New Zealand where 12 months ago we had a 7.1, and over 7000 aftershocks since then (one a 6.3 close to our city which devastated it and killed 182 people).

    So how have all the animals in our zoo and household etc been acting for the last 12 months?

    Normal… just normal. Then a shock hits and then they freak. Just like we do.
    You want scientific repeated data here you have it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. veith (@26), you should have quit while you were ahead!

    The LiveScience story was by far the most compelling thing you’ve posted for your argument. It references an actual scientific journal article from what appears to be a decent journal (the Journal of Zoology). Of course, it’s always best to read the original study, if you can. I’ll have to read that one a bit more. But kudos on that link.

    Still, I find it a bit humorous that the abstract from the J. Zool. study pretty much shoots a hole in your next link. Here’s what the actual scientists said:

    The widespread belief that animals can anticipate earthquakes (EQs) is poorly supported by evidence, most of which consists of anecdotal post hoc recollections and relates to a very short period immediately before such events.

    Well, guess what? Your “survey of animal reactions in California” link? Yeah, it’s a collection of anecdotal post hoc recollections. And how:

    During November of 1996 a telephone survey of 200 Santa Cruz County households was carried out in North-West California to find out how many people have observed unusual animal behavior prior to an earthquake.

    Wow. They called 200 people up and asked, “Hey, so, you ever notice any weird animal behavior before an earthquake?” And you want me to treat this like it’s science? Hey, I could call up 200 people and find out other trenchant facts, such as “Do homeopathic remedies really work?” Think of all the money we could save in the sciences!

    No, seriously, this is frustrating because you’re a professor, and I know you know how to assess an argument. You consider where it’s published, who published it, and of course what it says — the former two being important if you’re not terribly good at assessing the latter.

    I mean, if I wanted to argue, from a theological standpoint, that Lutherans are antinomians, and I backed it up by pointing you to a website called LutheransAreDumb.com, written by a well-known Jesuit priest, how much time would you spend considering my argument?

    And yet, here you have pointed us to AnimalsAndEarthquakes.com. Gee, I wonder what conclusion the articles on that site will arrive at? What are the odds that the homepage says “There is no evidence of correlation between animal behavior and earthquakes”? And what about the two, um, “researchers” who did that telephone survey? A quick Google finds these two stellar intro paragraphs from Wikipedia:

    David Jay Brown (born 1961) is an American writer and scientific researcher. Brown is the author of four interview collections with controversial scientists and artists, two science fiction novels, and a health science book. Brown’s scientific research has been in the areas of behavioral neuroscience, psychic phenomena, unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, and medical marijuana.

    Rupert Sheldrake (born 28 June 1942) is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for having proposed an unorthodox account of morphogenesis and for his research into parapsychology.

    Come on, isn’t your Spidey-sense tingling in the least bit on this one? Mine is.

    Of course if you apply David Hume’s critique of causality, all such observations can be doubted, interpreted as arbitrary correlations that only seem to be connected.

    See, you’re clever enough to be able to drop in an allusion to Hume, whom I haven’t read. That means you’re clever enough to assess scientific claims — by and large even if you don’t really grasp the underlying science. Or, at the very least, you should be able to distinguish between an actual science journal article and a small telephone survey done by two psychic quacks.

    Still, yes, I would argue that, to a good scientist, any one correlation is a coincidence. That’s pretty much the point behind the scientific method. Let’s see if we can repeat it over and over and get the same results. Let’s see if we can remove pretty much every other possible explanation.

    That’s why the J. Zool. study appears to be fairly good science. They tried to explain the change in toad breeding behavior by controlling for temperature, humidity, rain, wind speed, and so on (and that’s just from a quick skim of the graphs). They suggested a possible mechanism for further research that could account for the toads’ change (perturbations in the ionosphere; though, if this were anywhere near solid, you’d be hearing a lot more about ionosphere-based earthquake detectors right now).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. veith (@26), you should have quit while you were ahead!

    The LiveScience story was by far the most compelling thing you’ve posted for your argument. It references an actual scientific journal article from what appears to be a decent journal (the Journal of Zoology). Of course, it’s always best to read the original study, if you can. I’ll have to read that one a bit more. But kudos on that link.

    Still, I find it a bit humorous that the abstract from the J. Zool. study pretty much shoots a hole in your next link. Here’s what the actual scientists said:

    The widespread belief that animals can anticipate earthquakes (EQs) is poorly supported by evidence, most of which consists of anecdotal post hoc recollections and relates to a very short period immediately before such events.

    Well, guess what? Your “survey of animal reactions in California” link? Yeah, it’s a collection of anecdotal post hoc recollections. And how:

    During November of 1996 a telephone survey of 200 Santa Cruz County households was carried out in North-West California to find out how many people have observed unusual animal behavior prior to an earthquake.

    Wow. They called 200 people up and asked, “Hey, so, you ever notice any weird animal behavior before an earthquake?” And you want me to treat this like it’s science? Hey, I could call up 200 people and find out other trenchant facts, such as “Do homeopathic remedies really work?” Think of all the money we could save in the sciences!

    No, seriously, this is frustrating because you’re a professor, and I know you know how to assess an argument. You consider where it’s published, who published it, and of course what it says — the former two being important if you’re not terribly good at assessing the latter.

    I mean, if I wanted to argue, from a theological standpoint, that Lutherans are antinomians, and I backed it up by pointing you to a website called LutheransAreDumb.com, written by a well-known Jesuit priest, how much time would you spend considering my argument?

    And yet, here you have pointed us to AnimalsAndEarthquakes.com. Gee, I wonder what conclusion the articles on that site will arrive at? What are the odds that the homepage says “There is no evidence of correlation between animal behavior and earthquakes”? And what about the two, um, “researchers” who did that telephone survey? A quick Google finds these two stellar intro paragraphs from Wikipedia:

    David Jay Brown (born 1961) is an American writer and scientific researcher. Brown is the author of four interview collections with controversial scientists and artists, two science fiction novels, and a health science book. Brown’s scientific research has been in the areas of behavioral neuroscience, psychic phenomena, unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, and medical marijuana.

    Rupert Sheldrake (born 28 June 1942) is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for having proposed an unorthodox account of morphogenesis and for his research into parapsychology.

    Come on, isn’t your Spidey-sense tingling in the least bit on this one? Mine is.

    Of course if you apply David Hume’s critique of causality, all such observations can be doubted, interpreted as arbitrary correlations that only seem to be connected.

    See, you’re clever enough to be able to drop in an allusion to Hume, whom I haven’t read. That means you’re clever enough to assess scientific claims — by and large even if you don’t really grasp the underlying science. Or, at the very least, you should be able to distinguish between an actual science journal article and a small telephone survey done by two psychic quacks.

    Still, yes, I would argue that, to a good scientist, any one correlation is a coincidence. That’s pretty much the point behind the scientific method. Let’s see if we can repeat it over and over and get the same results. Let’s see if we can remove pretty much every other possible explanation.

    That’s why the J. Zool. study appears to be fairly good science. They tried to explain the change in toad breeding behavior by controlling for temperature, humidity, rain, wind speed, and so on (and that’s just from a quick skim of the graphs). They suggested a possible mechanism for further research that could account for the toads’ change (perturbations in the ionosphere; though, if this were anywhere near solid, you’d be hearing a lot more about ionosphere-based earthquake detectors right now).

  • RFB

    Funny, we live in the DC area and my dog slept through it!

  • RFB

    Funny, we live in the DC area and my dog slept through it!

  • Lauren

    I think it’s God’s little warning system for us. One of my cats failed at this, though. It was only when the earthquake started that she jumped off the chair she was sleeping on and ran for the hills.

  • Lauren

    I think it’s God’s little warning system for us. One of my cats failed at this, though. It was only when the earthquake started that she jumped off the chair she was sleeping on and ran for the hills.

  • http://whattoreadtoday.blogspot.com/ Paula

    @Webmonk – If you check out the Discovery News article, there were actually several reports of unusual animal behavior just prior to the earthquake.

    In defense of the zookeepers, their reports should hold significantly more weight than a random phone call to grandma. Most zookeepers have (at minimum) a degree in biology or a related field and many have advanced degrees. They are required to keep detailed records and logs about every aspect of the animals’ lives including diet, health, bowel movements and behavior. Even more detailed reports are required for so-called higher mammals like the great apes cited in the article and for endangered species like the gorillas and lemurs.

    I’ve volunteered at a zoo for the past 15+ years and have seen these folks in action. They are trained to notice the most subtle changes in behavior because they can be early indicators of illness. I sure wouldn’t write off their observations.

    FWIW, I don’t think Dr. Veith or most of the others here are asserting that the animals were utilizing some spooky magical abilities. Rather, that perhaps God equipped them with specially developed senses that enable them to detect an earthquake earlier than humans or even machines can. I own a yellow lab that can smell a person’s breath and determine if his blood sugar is too low or too high – amazing! We really don’t know how much we don’t know about the abilities of animals.

  • http://whattoreadtoday.blogspot.com/ Paula

    @Webmonk – If you check out the Discovery News article, there were actually several reports of unusual animal behavior just prior to the earthquake.

    In defense of the zookeepers, their reports should hold significantly more weight than a random phone call to grandma. Most zookeepers have (at minimum) a degree in biology or a related field and many have advanced degrees. They are required to keep detailed records and logs about every aspect of the animals’ lives including diet, health, bowel movements and behavior. Even more detailed reports are required for so-called higher mammals like the great apes cited in the article and for endangered species like the gorillas and lemurs.

    I’ve volunteered at a zoo for the past 15+ years and have seen these folks in action. They are trained to notice the most subtle changes in behavior because they can be early indicators of illness. I sure wouldn’t write off their observations.

    FWIW, I don’t think Dr. Veith or most of the others here are asserting that the animals were utilizing some spooky magical abilities. Rather, that perhaps God equipped them with specially developed senses that enable them to detect an earthquake earlier than humans or even machines can. I own a yellow lab that can smell a person’s breath and determine if his blood sugar is too low or too high – amazing! We really don’t know how much we don’t know about the abilities of animals.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Todd, I was just linking to some other articles on the internet about this alleged phenomenon. That second one included references to a number of other articles on the subject. (When I said “survey,” I was referring to a “survey of literature,” not the phone call survey the piece begins with.) At the end there is a reference list that gives actual scientific journals as well as, yes, news reports and more questionable publishers.

    What interests me are things that scientists do not yet or do not fully understand. What I often hear is the knee-jerk reaction of “we do too understand” and “what doesn’t fit into the existing model isn’t valid.” That I find annoying and closed-minded.

    Now it may be that animal reactions to earthquakes are actually things that either do not happen or that scientists actually do understand. I am impressed that the one article you acknowledge as scientifically legitimate is the one that makes the most outlandish claims (that frogs reacted five YEARS ahead of an earthquake). That means that you, unlike others, are prepared to go into uncharted territory.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Todd, I was just linking to some other articles on the internet about this alleged phenomenon. That second one included references to a number of other articles on the subject. (When I said “survey,” I was referring to a “survey of literature,” not the phone call survey the piece begins with.) At the end there is a reference list that gives actual scientific journals as well as, yes, news reports and more questionable publishers.

    What interests me are things that scientists do not yet or do not fully understand. What I often hear is the knee-jerk reaction of “we do too understand” and “what doesn’t fit into the existing model isn’t valid.” That I find annoying and closed-minded.

    Now it may be that animal reactions to earthquakes are actually things that either do not happen or that scientists actually do understand. I am impressed that the one article you acknowledge as scientifically legitimate is the one that makes the most outlandish claims (that frogs reacted five YEARS ahead of an earthquake). That means that you, unlike others, are prepared to go into uncharted territory.

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  • WebMonk

    Veith, double-check your reading glasses. It’s five days, not five years, in the earthquake-toad study.

    But, more importantly, I have a little known fact for you – the word “gullible” is not a real word even though we use it all the time. It’s true, try to look it up in the dictionary; it’s not there. Really.

    I just went and grabbed a couple of semi-random sample “studies” from that animalsandearthquakes site. I didn’t try anything that was listed as “unpublished” or things that were surveys of people, and I skipped the “psychic pets”. That narrowed down the list considerably. (that should also give you an idea that the site is … ‘suspect’ in its quality)

    There were only a couple left for me to pick. Most of them were from conferences the USGS held on the topic: “Abnormal Animal Behavior Prior to Earthquakes”. Want to know the conclusion of the conferences (first in 1976 then in 1980)? No studies were able to reliably show advanced warning though there are lots of stories and attempts.

    Another was a Japanese study using catfish – no advanced warning from the fish, but the study claimed catfish responded more sharply to stimuli before an earthquake than at other times, though they didn’t have any reaction on their own. This study has been pretty well chewed up since it came out and is considered to be hindsight-biased.

    The “Unusual behavior of fishes to earthquakes” was not one I could find, but I did find a different study (elephants and earthquakes) that referenced it as one of many studies done by the Chinese in this vein which had one success and many, many false alarms. (and the one success primarily used traditional means)

    Come on Veith – you noticed those “questionable” items. Did it not give you even the slightest hesitation that someone who so cavalierly lists psychic pets as reliable studies just might be misusing any valid studies he mentions?

    Does it not give you pause that ALL BUT ONE item you (and everyone else here) have put forward as “evidence” of animals having amazing earthquake warning senses were either anecdotal or came from “psychic pet” sites?

    The only one you’ve mentioned that is a rigorous look at the topic which shows animals giving advanced warning mentions, right at the very top, that the vast majority of reports on the topic are anecdotal or are only dealing with the immediately preceding moments of the EQ. That doesn’t raise red flags for you?

    Since I’ve already spent nearly 30 minutes on this, I’m not going to try to find it, but I know you had a post several months back about how many studies have impressive initial results, but then the attempts to duplicate the results fail. Apply that, and take the toad-EQ study with a grain of salt until it has some more verification.

  • WebMonk

    Veith, double-check your reading glasses. It’s five days, not five years, in the earthquake-toad study.

    But, more importantly, I have a little known fact for you – the word “gullible” is not a real word even though we use it all the time. It’s true, try to look it up in the dictionary; it’s not there. Really.

    I just went and grabbed a couple of semi-random sample “studies” from that animalsandearthquakes site. I didn’t try anything that was listed as “unpublished” or things that were surveys of people, and I skipped the “psychic pets”. That narrowed down the list considerably. (that should also give you an idea that the site is … ‘suspect’ in its quality)

    There were only a couple left for me to pick. Most of them were from conferences the USGS held on the topic: “Abnormal Animal Behavior Prior to Earthquakes”. Want to know the conclusion of the conferences (first in 1976 then in 1980)? No studies were able to reliably show advanced warning though there are lots of stories and attempts.

    Another was a Japanese study using catfish – no advanced warning from the fish, but the study claimed catfish responded more sharply to stimuli before an earthquake than at other times, though they didn’t have any reaction on their own. This study has been pretty well chewed up since it came out and is considered to be hindsight-biased.

    The “Unusual behavior of fishes to earthquakes” was not one I could find, but I did find a different study (elephants and earthquakes) that referenced it as one of many studies done by the Chinese in this vein which had one success and many, many false alarms. (and the one success primarily used traditional means)

    Come on Veith – you noticed those “questionable” items. Did it not give you even the slightest hesitation that someone who so cavalierly lists psychic pets as reliable studies just might be misusing any valid studies he mentions?

    Does it not give you pause that ALL BUT ONE item you (and everyone else here) have put forward as “evidence” of animals having amazing earthquake warning senses were either anecdotal or came from “psychic pet” sites?

    The only one you’ve mentioned that is a rigorous look at the topic which shows animals giving advanced warning mentions, right at the very top, that the vast majority of reports on the topic are anecdotal or are only dealing with the immediately preceding moments of the EQ. That doesn’t raise red flags for you?

    Since I’ve already spent nearly 30 minutes on this, I’m not going to try to find it, but I know you had a post several months back about how many studies have impressive initial results, but then the attempts to duplicate the results fail. Apply that, and take the toad-EQ study with a grain of salt until it has some more verification.

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