Mexico rattled by second deadly earthquake in a week
Days after a deadly 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook cities in Mexico, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rattled Michoacan, causing at least two deaths.
Ariana Triggs, USA TODAY
Q. I read a BBC article called “The Animals That Detect Disasters” (February 2022) about how animals actually do predict natural disasters, which is in contrast to a column you once wrote. The authors provide research to confirm that animals predicted an earthquake in China. Does the new evidence change your opinion on the topic? Do you agree that animal behavior that can predict natural disasters such as earthquakes would be beneficial to humans?
A. The short answers are “No” and “No.” The BBC article you refer to repeats several timeworn anecdotes about dogs barking and horses stampeding just before an earthquake and wild mammals running inland from a beach where a deadly tsunami would soon hit.
These stories usually have two fatal flaws. One is that people always recall the unusual behavior of these seemingly clairvoyant animals with their psychic powers after the event. The other flaw: unusual animal behavior happens all the time. Dogs bark and horses run through open gates.
And when we see animals in the wild, they are usually moving away from us. As for saving human lives, how would you know what the animal’s behavior was warning you about — until after the fact?
Stories about animal warning systems flourish over time and retelling, eventually becoming established facts in the minds of some. The story about the devastating earthquake in Haicheng, China, is a good example. Much of the city was evacuated before a major earthquake in 1975. One account claims that residents were warned of the impending disaster by “sudden changes in the behavior of snakes and other animals.” The part of the event those storytellers fail to mention is that the city was evacuated based on a warning by seismologists who detected the earthquake in advance.
Survivors can thank the scientists monitoring the seismic waves in the earth’s crust, not the odd behavior of animals that was remembered after the fact.
Can some animals sense impending disaster? Would such an early detection system allow people to save themselves? Most animals have a fight-or-flight response when facing danger. Since you can’t fight an earthquake, the choices are to hunker down or run. Do animals know exactly where to go during an earthquake? Are they simply doing what we would do once we become aware of imminent disaster? How many false alarms would we be dealing with?
Reports of dogs barking to warn of an earthquake are highly suspect. If I used that metric in my neighborhood, I would be expecting earthquakes every day.
Some animal behaviors happen frequently but are not remembered unless an earthquake or other natural disaster follows soon after. For example, someone who saw six deer cross the road would remember it and probably tell people. What if an earthquake shook the area five minutes later? The person might conclude the deer had been making a pre-emptive move. If so, how would the deer have known which way to go?
I do not doubt that some animals, such as snakes living below ground, can detect early tremors of an earthquake before we can, which means they have an opportunity to react sooner. But what do animal behaviors tell us? How to turn this behavior into an early warning system for humans is equivocal. They provide little guidance of what might befall us or where we should seek safety.
Animals that can detect a trembling earth just get to be frightened a few seconds before the rest of us. Their reactions offer no guidance for people.
I like it when animals have capabilities beyond our own, as many do, with special senses that allow them to tune in to dramatic natural phenomena. Some animals clearly have superpowers that exceed anything people can do naturally.
Bats and dolphins can hear ultrasonic sounds; duckbill platypuses and knifefishes can detect electrical impulses created by a prey animal’s muscular activity; some birds and possibly sea turtles can navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. Animals possess plenty of well-documented wondrous behaviors. We do not need to add highly suspect ones to the list.
Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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