Can animal behavior help “predict” the arrival of earthquakes? A new, comprehensive review paper, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, says that the evidence is pretty insubstantial in this regard.
Don’t fret if you think that animals do, in fact, sense when an earthquake’s a-coming: it’s widely implied that they can. Indeed, throughout history, a massive cornucopia of critters, from dogs to silkworms, have been reported acting bizarrely some time before a major earthquake hits, although the mechanism by which each animal is seemingly sensing the forthcoming quake remains heavily debated.
This new statistical review, led by the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, took a good look at such claims. Looking at 180 peer-reviewed publications discussing abnormal animal behavior prior to earthquakes, the team established as best they could when in the earthquake sequence the strange behavior took place and what kind of observations of the behavior were made, among other things.
The reports came from 25 different countries, but most originated in New Zealand, Japan, Italy, and Taiwan, all of which are seismically highly active countries. Over 700 records of claimed “animal precursors” to 160 different quakes were assessed.
Their review featured case studies involving over 130 different species, and included elephants fleeing to higher ground, ants having a little freak out, and toads temporarily changing their migratory patterns. Forget dogs running around and barking – the range of supposed predictive behaviors is vast and bizarre.
Sometimes, animals reacted mere moments before an earthquake struck. Others were seen to alter their behavior for days or even weeks before and after the event took place. Some behaved oddly near the earthquake’s epicenter; others acted up hundreds of kilometers away.
This is by far the most detailed statistical analysis investigating the phenomenon to date, which is why it's significant that the team found no strong evidence whatsoever that animal behavior can indicate when an earthquake is about to hit.
The major problem here is that the majority of these reports are anecdotal, and anecdotal evidence doesn’t make for good science. In fact, the anomalous behaviors were often poorly defined and were only “noticed” retrospectively, after the quake took place.