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Have you heard about how pets sometimes go missing just before an earthquake hits? Or how about in 2004, when a tsunami hit southeast Asia and killed more than 200,000 people... but almost no wild animals? Did you know that dogs, elephants, antelopes, bats and even flamingos fled the scene before the wave hit?
Many people assume it's because animals are more attuned to their environment than we are. Others, like the United States Geological Survey agency say there's no connection between animal behavior and natural disasters. But if there were, wouldn't it warrant a closer look?
Now the majority of researchers looking into this aren't claiming animals have a sixth sense or anything supernatural going on. What they think is that animals make greater use of their senses than we do. Using these, they react to environmental signals that we stupid humans don't even notice.
Most likely, animals can hear sounds that we can't, especially the infrasonic, low-pitched vibrations made by earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, avalanches and oceans. So with their greater spectrum of hearing, it makes sense that animals would perceive these before us as unsettling. If you heard a deep, rumbling sound coming at you from a wide angle, what would you do? Hang out making sandwiches? Or run for your life?
One study that supports this infrasonic hearing theory happened when Stanley Coren was studying whether dogs suffered from seasonal affective disorder. One day many of his 193 test dogs suddenly became agitated. Coren couldn't figure out what was going on until he noticed that a day later an earthquake struck nearby at a 6.8 on the richter scale.
Here's where it gets crazy. After reviewing the results, Coren found that 14 of the animals had hearing impairments and these were the dogs that didn’t become anxious before the earthquake.
Looking further he noticed that dogs with floppy ears were less likely to be agitated than those with perky, open ears. So it looks like the strength of their sense of hearing was what attuned the dogs to the earthquake's low tones.
Another theory is that through their sense of touch, animals can feel vibrations through the ground or sense shifts in air or water pressure. Hurricanes are known to decrease such pressures.
And scientists have observed that sharks change their behavior when storms cause pressure drops, swimming to deeper waters where they'll be protected. Birds and insects also seek cover when this happens.
Now that you’ve heard the theories, do you think we should make safety decisions based on the behavior of our local animals? China did in 1975, when they evacuated a city before an earthquake hit after its animals showed signs of high anxiety. It’s estimated they saved thousands of lives.
Kaplan M. Beastly powers. New Scientist [serial online]. February 17, 2007;193(2591):34. Available from: Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 10, 2014.