- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The idea that animals can sense imminent danger is likely more than an old wives’ tale, says veterinarian Marie Suthers-McCabe.

It isn’t surprising that animals fled the scene of last December’s Asian tsunami, which killed as many as 150,000 people, says Dr. Suthers-McCabe, associate professor of human-companion animal interaction at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

“Of course the animals could sense it,” Dr. Suthers-McCabe says. “I believe that animals have the ability to sense things going on in their environment.”

Theories about this topic are explored in a PBS “Nature” special titled “Can Animals Predict Disaster?” that airs Sunday. Check local listings for airtime.

Animals in the wild likely react in ways similar to dogs that can be trained to detect seizures in humans, she says. A change in a person’s energy field might cause a trained dog to pick up a vibration, she says. The animals have been known to warn their owners of impending seizures.

“I’ve wondered if it’s a similar kind of thing with animals in the wild,” Dr. Suthers-McCabe says. “It would seem like it would be wise for us to be in tune to animals’ reactions.”

After the December 2004 tsunami, there were many reports of animals acting in extremely unusual ways before the catastrophe hit, says Jeff Swimmer, producer and writer for “Can Animals Predict Disaster?”

“Nature has a lot more tricks up her sleeve than we imagine,” Mr. Swimmer says. “In a lot of cultures, especially in Asia, and other parts of the world as well, there has always been a folkloric belief that animals can warn people of natural disasters.”

Although ancient art has depicted this belief for centuries, the recent calamity caused many scientists to look more closely at these myths, he says.

Though animals may be able to detect the precursors of such events, it is probably a stretch to say the creatures know they are natural disasters, he says. Most likely, the animals are using self-preservation instincts.

“It’s a happy accident that they may also be able to use their skills to detect natural disasters,” Mr. Swimmer says. “It’s hard to study them in a scientifically controlled way to try to please mainstream science.”

Because animals aren’t computers, it’s hard to bottle their actions and use them as an accurate instrument. Critics say signs from animals wouldn’t give people enough time to protect themselves from danger anyhow.

However, the actions of house pets might warn their owners in enough time to get under a doorway during an earthquake, he says. In severe cases, some animals may give officials enough notice to shut down a nuclear power plant, he says.

“Of course, there is the problem of a false alarm,” Mr. Swimmer says. “Then, you get into the boy-who-cried-wolf dilemma.”

Whether or not animals can predict severe weather, many of them, including hippos, can make and hear very-low-frequency sounds that humans cannot, says William Barklow, professor of biology at Framingham State College in Framingham, Mass. He holds a doctorate in biology. He has studied hippos for the past decade.

“I’m pretty sure there are threat signals between hippos,” Mr. Barklow says. “There is a lot of aggression in hippo societies. When a hippo makes a low-frequency sound to threaten a hippo, if the other hippo heard a low-frequency sound, it might go away from it.”

Animals such as hippos may have detected low-frequency sounds created by the tsunami and fled, reacting to it as if it were communication from another animal.

Elephants often detect vibrations through their feet and trunks, says Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, research associate at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. She holds a doctorate in ecology.

“Elephant keepers said that the animals were very disturbed at the time of the earthquake before the tsunami hit,” Ms. O’Connell-Rodwell says. “They broke their chains and ran inland. The elephants would have heard or felt the tsunami coming.”

She is investigating whether the vibrations are sensed through bone conduction, which would travel through the toenails up to their ears, or through sensory reception.

Many mammals have cells that are used for predator avoidance. Kangaroos have them in their knees, and cats have them in their paws, while primates have them in their fingers, feet and lips. These cells might be used to sense vibrations, similar to how deaf people can feel the rhythm of music through their feet.

Ms. O’Connell-Rodwell is working with Donna, an elephant at the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif., to try to detect the lowest vibration elephants can feel. She is simulating the earthquake levels in Sri Lanka and Thailand.

“It’s challenging to interpret their responses,” Ms. O’Connell-Rodwell says. “We’re trying to repeat the experiment in Zimbabwe with wild elephants, where they are semicaptive but they live in a natural environment.”

Anyone who has worked with domestic animals, such as dogs, cats or horses, knows they have the ability to detect approaching thunderstorms, says Michael Garstang, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He holds a doctorate in meteorology.

The Chinese and Japanese have used animals for warnings about the coming of earthquakes for years, he says. In the case of thunderstorms, animals probably are hearing the motions of vigorous clouds, similar to the sound produced by turbulence in the wake of the engines in a large aircraft, he explains.

“Sound is, in general, transmitted through the atmosphere,” Mr. Garstang says. “Temperature and wind speed influence very strongly how well the sound is transmitted. The atmosphere can totally mask sounds or enhance sounds so that they can be detected a very long way.”

Although there is no doubt in Mr. Garstang’s mind that animals can detect natural disasters, he says it’s difficult to produce evidence that is credible to the scientific community.

“Most scientists relegate the phenomenon as being anecdotal,” Mr. Garstang says. “They think because you can’t repeat it or understand it that it’s not valuable. I’m not of that opinion. Anecdotal information is valuable. Just because we can’t understand it, or repeat it, doesn’t discount it.”

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