PBS Nature: Can Animals Predict Disaster?

| November 13, 2005

Can Animals Predict Disaster?, a new PBS documentary, opens with scenes from the December 2004 tsunami which devastated many parts of South and Southeastern Asia and killed a quarter of a million people. As we see the gigantic waves break on the heavily populated beaches, we are told that flamingoes in India, elephants in Thailand and dogs in Sri Lanka may have predicted this catastrophe. The flamingoes left their breeding rituals to flee the coast, the captive elephants strained to escape their chains, and the dogs howled and growled and tried to run away. All of this sounds like anecdotal evidence: more local folklore than hard science. But as the documentary goes on to show us, there is a growing body of experimental proof that some animals can detect some subtle signals in the earth long before humans can and in time to save themselves from harm.
One of the first pieces of evidence provided, and my personal favorite, is the Californian geologist who tracks the number of missing pets advertised in local papers. Using a spike in this number to predict rumblings in the earth, he had foretold the 1989 earthquake that hit San Francisco right before the start of a World Series baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Other, less striking studies include that of the Japanese scientist who tests whether animals can detect small changes in electrical fields like those that may precede a natural disaster. He bases his experiments on Japanese folklore–the catfish is supposed to be particularly sensitive–and carries out laboratory experiments to recreate the kind of changes that may occur at the onset of an earthquake, for example. Researchers have also studied elephants, both wild in the Kalahari desert and captive in the Oakland zoo and find that they can often sense small shocks that are hard for humans to pick up on. The wild elephants freeze for a couple of minutes, their trunks flat against the earth, as if they are concentrating on something in the distance. A royal Bengal tiger is also given a similar impulse, and raises his beautiful head in response. Meanwhile the visitors at the zoo don’t even pause for a moment.
One of the best things about Can Animals Predict Disaster? is that it draws our attention to ongoing study of a phenomenon that is not well understood, or even acknowledged yet. Much of the evidence is very slim, and from a public policy point of view, it would be helpful to know whether domestic pets really do have the same power as elephants in the wild, so that human lives can actually be saved. But it is nevertheless interesting to see how scientists, many of them outside the mainstream, have been trying to pin down exactly what is going on. As a Sri Lankan wildlife researcher points out, we may not know exactly what is happening, but in a country where as many as forty thousand people may have died in the tsunami, there were surprisingly few deaths among the higher vertebrates in a coastal wildlife park.

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