There’s certainly evidence that animals can tell whether an earthquake is imminent: the United States Geological Survey puts such evidence as far back as 353 BC when animals reportedly disappeared ‘several days’ before an earthquake struck in Greece. And John McPhee, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning study of American geology, refers to the behaviour of wildlife immediately before a major earthquake struck Montana in 1959.
“Birds of every sort had made a wholesale departure from [the] mountain. It would be noted by others that bears had taken off as well, while bears that remained walked preoccupied in circles.” No-one knows where the bears went.
There is an explanation for this: that animals are more sensitive to earthquake waves than humans and might feel the first tremors sooner. But that’s a matter of seconds, not days or even hours: so there’s plenty of uncertainty here too.
As Joseph Kirschink points out in his study of the subject, “although anecdotal and retrospective reports of animal behavior suggest that although many organisms may be able to detect an impending seismic event, no plausible scenario has been presented yet through which accounts for the evolution of such behaviors.”
Earthquake Prediction: Pulling the Data Together
So, what can we make of all this information? We know that there are certain things that happen before some earthquakes but not all (and may happen when no earthquake takes place). Foreshocks have not, apart from isolated cases, proved an effective tool for prediction and even though there’s clear evidence that animals have some kind of sense about earthquakes that humans don’t, we’re a long way from understanding why this happens and even further from being able to harness the knowledge to predict earthquakes with any reliability.
There’s a glimmer of hope in the conclusions from the Cicerone et al study which notes that in future some of the uncertainties of geological precursors are likely to be eliminated – though this would require intensive study and instrumentation with associated costs. In the meantime, scientists keep on working towards integrating their knowledge of earthquake precursors into a reliable system for prediction.
Musson, R. The Million Death Quake. (2012). Macmillan.
Cicerone, R. D., Ebel, J. E. and Britton, J. A systematic compilation of earthquake precursors. (2009). Tectonophysics. Accessed May 23, 2013.
Kirschvink, J.L. Earthquake Prediction by Animals: Evolution and Sensory Perception.(2000). Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. Accessed May 23, 2013.
McPhee, J. Annals of the Former World. (1998). Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
USGS. Animals & Earthquake Prediction. Accessed 23 May 2013
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