Can Animals Sense When an Earthquake is Coming?
That’s my bunny. For some reason, I have noted that she was very on edge last night, and very early this morning, a magnitude 3.5 earthquake struck not ten miles from where we live.
It’s not the first time this happens either — the night before the last noticeable earthquake, she appeared to be frightened of something.
Is there anything to this other than pure coincidence? Well, it’s hard to tell.
While it is well known that animals can sense an earthquake minutes before it hits, the millennia-old belief that they can detect one a few days in advance has raised some skepticism.
In 373 B.C., batches of animals such as rats, snakes, and even bugs fled the city of Helice, Greece. Days later, a devastating earthquake ravaged the city.
Many cultures have independently interpreted animal behavior as a warning sign for earthquakes — including those of China and Japan, a country most prone to earthquakes.
As recently as 1975, Chinese authorities ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng. They believed that an earthquake was imminent, and erratic animal behavior was part of what drove them to this conclusion.
Days later, the area was dismantled by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake. Had the city not been evacuated, fatalities could have reached 150,000.
The scientific community remains skeptical that animal behavior is a sign of earthquakes — in part because most of the evidence suggesting this is anecdotal.
Some scientists argue that this could be the result of a psychological effect. People should be more prone to remembering erratic animal behavior after an earthquake, after all, why would someone remember erratic animal behavior just because?
However, I will argue this skepticism to be unfounded. It is one thing for my household rabbit to get random fits of instinctual panic — it is another thing entirely for hundreds of animals to flee their habitat only days before an earthquake.
And this is not speculation; it is an observed effect. Friedemann T. Freund, SETI Institute Senior Researcher, has shown this effect in a study in which he points out how animal activity basically stopped at Yanachaga National Park, Peru, before a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.
Besides, any evidence on this subject is likely to be anecdotal. How do you conduct a controlled study on this subject? Lock a couple of animals in a room and keep observing them until an earthquake hits? If I suggest this to a scientist, I’m the one likely to get hit.
Freund did it the right way by checking footage taken from motion-activated wildlife cameras at the park. These types of studies don’t happen often, but they suggest something is up.
More studies are needed to confirm this, and yes, perhaps my little household lagomorph has given me some bias in approaching this topic. But the evidence so far is compelling, with records older than two millennia, with more than 150,000 lives saved in part due to observation of erratic animal behavior, and the same behavior recorded by cameras before a major Peruvian earthquake.
The Scientific American begins their article on this subject with an X-Files quote: “Highly unlikely, but not outside the realm of extreme possibilities.”
I beg to differ, and with a proud and rebellious “not this time” to Betteridge’s law of headlines, I believe the answer to the question of whether some animals can sense earthquakes days in advance is that it is highly likely they can.