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.

I felt the earth. move. under my feet

I was writing in my office at school when, around 1:51 yesterday, the building and my desk with the built in bookshelf started shaking.  Hard.  Back and forth for thirty seconds.   My mind went just blank, and when I gathered my wits, right at the time it was over, I realized, Earthquake!

I have never experienced one of those and have always been kind of paranoid about it, mildly worried whenever I set foot in California.  I had heard from my California friends that they went through them all the time, that they were usually just mild ripples.  This was no mild ripple!  It was a hard long shake.  It turned out to have been 5.9 on the Richter scale, no less, with an epicenter of around 100 miles away from us in central Virginia.   We are close to Washington, D.C., where I’m told people downtown rushed into the street and the Pentagon and White House were evacuated.  The quake was felt for hundreds of miles, including in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where JFK airport was shut down.  And yet there seems to be no damage to speak of and no one hurt.  (If you hear reports otherwise, please report them in a comment.)

Some of you readers must have felt it too.  If you did, please report and give your location.  Let’s see if we can calculate how far this thing reached.

Photo of Earthquake Devastation in D.C.

From Bright Young Things

Via FamousDC.com

HT:  Necessary Roughness

More on Japan’s earthquake

Officials estimate that at least 10,000 may be dead–with thousands more still missing–due to the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.  Meanwhile, more nuclear power plants are in danger of meltdown.

See 10K dead in Japan amid fears of nuclear meltdowns – Yahoo! News.

Japan has been a world leader in the design of earthquake-resistant structures.  Read this confident–but now ironic–account of all that Japan does to ensure safety during an earthquake.

But this goes to show that all of the ingenious engineering does little if the earthquake is powerful enough.

Go here to help.

What does this mean for California, midwesterners along the New Madris fault, and other potential earthquake zones in the U.S.A.?


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