Can animals reliably warn us of impending disasters?

We've all heard anecdotes about (or experienced ourselves) pets acting freaky minutes before an earthquake or other natural disaster. On a bigger scale, in 2004 hours before the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, elephants reportedly ran to the hills and flamingoes flew to higher locales. Now, respected researchers are studying whether animals are truly able to detect imminent disasters and whether they might reliably warn us. From the BBC News:

One of the most important investigations into how animals could predict disasters was carried out five years ago by a team led by Martin Wikelski from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany. The study involved recording the movement patterns of different animals (cows, sheep and dogs) – a process known as biologging – on a farm in the earthquake-prone region of the Marches in central Italy. Collars with chips were attached to each animal, which sent movement data to a central computer every few minutes between October 2016 and April 2017.

During this period, official statistics recorded over 18,000 quakes in the region, from tiny tremors measuring just 0.4 magnitude up to a dozen quakes notching 4 or above – including the devastating magnitude 6.6 magnitude Norcia earthquake.

The researchers found evidence that the farm animals began to change their behaviour up to 20 hours before an earthquake. Whenever the monitored farm animals were collectively 50% more active for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, the researchers predicted an earthquake with a magnitude above 4.0. Seven out of eight strong earthquakes were correctly predicted in this way.

"The closer the animals were to the epicentre of the impending shock, the earlier they changed their behaviour," Wikelski said in 2020 when the study was released. "This is exactly what you would expect when physical changes occur more frequently at the epicentre of the impending earthquake and become weaker with increasing distance."

Another study carried out by Wikelski monitoring the movements of tagged goats on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily also found the animals seemed to have an advance sense of when Etna was going to burst into life.

image: Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior