On December 26, 2004, an earthquake along the floor of the Indian Ocean was responsible for a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands of people in Asia and East Africa. In the midst of all the destruction, wildlife officials at Sri Lanka's Yala National Park have reported no mass animal deaths. Yala National Park is a wildlife reserve populated by hundreds of wild animals including elephants, leopards, and monkeys. Researchers believe that these animals were able to sense the danger long before humans.
Can Animals Sense Natural Disasters?Animals have keen senses that help them avoid predators or locate prey. It is thought that these senses might also help them detect pending disasters. Several countries have conducted research on the detection of earthquakes by animals. There are two theories as to how animals may be able to detect earthquakes. One theory is that animals sense the earth's vibrations. Another is that they can detect changes in the air or gases released by the earth. There has been no conclusive evidence as to how animals may be able to sense earthquakes. Some researchers believe the animals at Yala National Park were able to detect the earthquake and move to higher ground before the tsunami hit, causing massive waves and flooding.
Other researchers are skeptical about using animals as earthquake and natural disaster detectors. They site the difficulty of developing a controlled study that can connect a specific animal behavior with an earthquake occurrence. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) officially states: *Changes in animal behavior cannot be used to predict earthquakes. Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been made. Because of their finely tuned senses, animals can often feel the earthquake at its earliest stages before the humans around it can. This feeds the myth that the animal knew the earthquake was coming. But animals also change their behavior for many reasons, and given that an earthquake can shake millions of people, it is likely that a few of their pets will, by chance, be acting strangely before an earthquake.
Although scientists disagree as to whether animal behavior can be used to predict earthquakes and natural disasters, they all agree that it is possible for animals to sense changes in the environment before humans. Researchers around the world are continuing to study animal behavior and earthquakes. It is hoped that these studies will help to aid earthquake predictions.
*U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey-Earthquake Hazards Program