Can animals sniff out disaster?

THE days just after Christmas used to be happy ones, but events five years ago changed all that.

On St Stephen’s Day 2004, a fissure ruptured under the Indian Ocean.

The rift progressed along the seabed for 10 minutes, releasing a colossal amount of energy. A huge pressure wave set out like the Horsemen in the Apocalypse on a lethal mission. The tsunami struck the coastlines of Asia and Africa catching everyone unawares. At least 213,000 people died. The actual total will never be known.

Following the horror, reports of unusual animal behaviour began to surface. Domestic pets, it was claimed, became agitated before the wave struck. In one case, dogs had refused to take their daily walk with their owner, thereby saving his life. Wild creatures behaved similarly. An elephant chained to a post tore itself free and fled. Another promptly left a beach and moved to high ground on the fateful morning. Nocturnal bats took wing in daylight, minutes before the wall of water arrived.

Anecdotal reports are notoriously unreliable. However, Sri Lanka Preservation Society president, Ravi Corea, visited disaster-stricken areas and was struck by the absence of animal carcasses. Only domestic creatures, confined to pens, seemed to have died. In the local national park, 50 visitors perished but no animals did. The rats, as it were, had left the sinking ship, but how could they have known that the wave was coming? Accounts of strange behaviour are usually ascribed to the ‘psychological focusing effect’; people tend to remember things which occurred at the time of a significant event, whereas they forget them when nothing untoward happens. However, in the case of the tsunami, claims that animals anticipated the disaster were so widespread that it’s difficult to ascribe them all to the focussing effect.

In 373BC, rats, snakes and weasels were said to have left the Greek city of Helice before a devastating tremor. The suggestion that there were weasels in a city is so odd that it undermines the report. Medieval philosophers also believed in the special powers of animals, but they ‘had an agenda’. Their theology demanded that only humans could reason. If an animal could do so, it would have an immortal soul and the holy men wouldn’t concede that. Claiming that animals had extra senses solved the problem: a sheep encountering a wolf for the first time would flee but this didn’t mean it had sized up the situation rationally, a special sense disclosed the danger instinctively.

The Islamic philosopher, Avicenna, thought that there were up to five additional senses.

So are there grounds for believing in super-senses? Birds and bees respond to ultra-violet light and see colours which we can’t. Dogs and bats hear sounds above the range of our hearing. Rattle-snakes detect heat radiation and sharks respond to the tiniest traces of blood in sea-water.

Seismologists are under such pressure to predict earthquakes and volcanoes that they will clutch at any straw. During the 1970s, the US Geological Survey kept dogs under surveillance in earthquake zones. When tremors occurred, they looked for changes in the animals’ behaviour prior to the event. The results were inconclusive. Dogs sometimes became agitated for no discernible reason while others slept peacefully prior to a quake.

Two universal features of animal behaviour may offer a partial explanation. An individual encountering something unknown flees instinctively and animals are highly sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviour. If an impala on an African plain becomes jittery, those close to it pick up on the fear. Soon, all the local impalas zebras and wildebeests are hyper-vigilant. If one runs, all run. Should an individual somehow get wind of an approaching tsunami, a mass exodus might be triggered. But how could the wave have been detected in the first place? Were faint shock waves, passing through the ground, detected by some individuals? Elephants detect vibrations and very low-pitched sounds. Indeed they communicate using them. The sudden withdrawal of the water ahead of the wave was a fatal attraction for people, but it could have the opposite effect on animals.

The sudden drop in sea level might even have produced a detectable change in air pressure.


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