Going Ape over Earthquakes

A recent story about the devastating D.C. quake dredged up the old claim that animal behavior can predict earthquakes.

Animals at the Washington National Zoo started behaving oddly minutes before Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 earthquake hit.

Quakes seem to dislodge quack claims as much as they do dust and debris. 

There are plenty of resources showing why this claim is dubious. National Geographic:

American seismologists, on the other hand, are skeptical. Even though there have been documented cases of strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes, the United States Geological Survey, a government agency that provides scientific information about the Earth, says a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of a quake has never been made.

And Skepticblog.

The idea that animals can predict earthquakes has been carefully analyzed and has failed the test again and again. Animals may be more sensitive than humans to the P-waves, which are the fastest seismic waves and arrive several seconds before the destructive S-waves in regions far from the epicenter—but this gives warnings of only a few seconds in any place that is likely to experience strong shaking. If animals are sensitive to other disturbances in the earth’s crust that happen more than a few seconds before the quake itself, it has never been reliably corroborated. In addition, this method runs into the same problem that most short-term earthquake prediction methods have encountered: no two earthquakes are alike. Some have precursors, and others don’t. Thus, if animals did act strangely before a particular quake occurred (just as some geophysical precursors have been observed on some quakes), there is no evidence that they reliably predict most quakes (just as many quakes don’t have precursors).

The story I linked to at the top of this post provides good fodder for a skeptical thinking analysis.

First to respond to some hidden signal, says the zoo, were the red-ruffed lemurs, which sounded an alarm call about 15 minutes before the quake and then again just after it occurred.

The writer assumes that lemur alarm calls never happen at other times and for other reasons and, in an interesting twist on a post hoc fallacy, further assumes that 15 minutes is close enough to the quake for the two events to be related. Which is in direct conflict with the next paragraph.

About five to ten seconds before the quake, many of the apes, including Kyle, an orangutan, and Kojo, a western lowland gorilla, abandoned their food and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in the exhibit.

About three seconds before the quake, a gorilla called Mandara let out a shriek, collected her baby, Kibibi, and did the same.

So 15 minutes to 3 or 5 or 10 seconds. The latter is at least more credible because of that P-wave idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if just better low-frequency hearing explained this. But, again, this assumes that orangutans never abandon their food and climb trees at other times and for other reasons.

Another orangutan began ‘belch vocalizing’, making a noise normally reserved for extreme irritation, before the quake and carried on afterwards. Snakes writhed, flamingos huddled, and creatures from a shrew to a Komodo dragon hid.

Carrying on afterwards is neither odd nor predictive, of course. Somehow the writing, huddling and hiding don’t seem different from what I’ve seen on normal days at the zoo. Now comes the most telling paragraph.

However plenty of animals faled to react at all, including the Przewalski’s horses, the scimitar-horned oryx and the giant pandas.

Pandas are just mellow. Everybody knows that.

Many animals appear to be able to sense disasters coming. Last year, a toad researcher – yes, they do exist, reported that her subjects scarpered a full five days before a major earthquake struck 74 miles away in L’Aquila.

Wait. I was complaining about 15 minutes for animals a short distance from the quake?Now anything strange within 5 days and 74 miles is a prediction? When psychics try this we call it cherry picking. I’m pretty sure somewhere in Virginia a cabbie honked his horn at somebody within 5 days of the quake. Should that count as a prediction?

It’s been suggested that the animals may be responding to the release of radon gas, triggered by changes in the ionosphere.

Suggested by whom? There are people working on using radon detectors to predict quakes, but I can’t find anything suggesting that animals are good radon detectors. “It’s been suggested” is an even bigger red flag than “some say”.

Remember: Just because a story appears on the “science” page doesn’t mean you can let down your critical thinking guard.

About Craig Good

Film maven. Foodie. Skeptic. Voice actor. Writer.
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3 Responses to Going Ape over Earthquakes

  1. Guy McCardle says:

    Hmmmm….I always assumed that animals being able to sense an earthquake before people was just one of those “true facts”. Thanks for making me look at the matter again with a skeptical eye.

  2. Sharon Hill says:

    Funny I blogged about this the same day. I noticed the news media had taken the press release and gone overboard.

    Actually, there is very good evidence, anecdotal mostly, but also laboratory evidence, that supports the idea that animals can detect precursors of quakes. Better yet, there is some theoretical plausibility, as mentioned.
    There are many problems. Not all animals have the same enhanced senses (sharks can detect electrical fields, dogs have enhanced smell, cats can detect static electricity, elephants can feel low frequency vibrations, etc.). Not all earthquakes give off the same precursors or perhaps none at all.
    The earthquake was centered 80 miles or so from the National Zoo and it was pretty small. I’m not at all surprised by these observations but they were overblown.
    I can’t see animals ever being used as reliable indicators of quakes. I think that perhaps we can get better at different instruments for detection – such as montitoring water and radon levels, EMFs, ionization of the air, etc. If we maximize our spectrum of observations, we may begin to see individual patterns for certain geologic areas. But, in this case, I think anomalous natural events before earthquakes can give us a indication of where to look harder and more carefully. Using animals themselves as crude indicators will leave us running for cover too often.
    Here are some references.
    Tributsch, Helmut, 1982, When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction, MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

    Ikeya, Motiji, 2004, Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science, World Scientific Publishing Co., Pte. Ltd.: Singapore.

    And for my research summary, see this page. http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2007/01/02/whispers-from-the-earth/

  3. Hey Brian,

    I found this article today on Gizmodo and wondered what you would think of it.

    It claims that animals have been observed reacting to earthquakes.

    It seems that because of chemical changes in water, changes that occur when rocks are under extreme stress (just like before a quake hits), charged particles are released from the “earths crust”, which in turn react with the groundwater sometimes creating hydrogen peroxide. The frogs react to this and hey presto, an earthquake can be predicted (paraphrasing there, sorry!)

    They also mention an anecdote about snakes in China evacuating their winter burrows before a quake but without any linked evidence.

    I did however find the original BBC article from which Gizmodo were quoting in which they do provide a link to the initial paper on groundwater chemistry changes.

    Here is the link to the paper from the BBC story: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3138006/pdf/ijerph-08-01936.pdf

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Keep up the good work.
    John Dempster.

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