tsunami -animals 6th sense

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    From SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, Jan 9 2005, p A-14


    [ Dec 26 2004 ]


    Tales of animals behaving strangely before the quake and of wildlife escaping to safety have abounded in the wake of the tsunami, raising anew questions about what these members of the animal kingdom knew that humans didn't -- and what, if anything, can be learned from it.

    Seismologists have sophisticated instruments that can measure quake factors during and after the fact, but experts admit no one can predict exactly when one will happen. Some scientists say certain animals have a kind of sensory hardwiring that can detect earthquakes ahead of time, which one day might be replicated with mechanical devices.

    Reports of animals' sixth sense in detecting hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions long before the earth starts shaking go back centuries. Rats racing from buildings, sparrows taking flight in flocks, dogs howling incessantly: It's an impressive track record -- though anecdotal.

    Science is iffy on a subject that, for obvious reasons, is difficult to replicate in a laboratory. And there are always explanations and theories that mitigate the mystery of the anecdotes. In the case of this tsunami, said Ken Grant, project coordinator at the Humane Society International Asia office in Bali, Indonesia, a lot of animals escaped simply because they tend to live inland, in the forest.


    In Khao Lak, 50 miles north of Phuket along Thailand's western coast, a dozen elephants giving tourists rides began trumpeting hours before the Dec. 26 tsunami -- about the time the 9.0-magnitude quake fractured the ocean floor. An hour before the wall of waves slammed the resort area, the elephants reportedly again grew agitated and began wailing. Just before disaster struck, they headed for higher ground -- some breaking their chains to flee.


    Flamingos that breed this time of year at Point Calimere sanctuary on India's southern coast left for safer forests well before the tsunami hit, forest officials told the India News.


    At the hard-hit Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, stunned wildlife officials reported that hundreds of elephants, leopards, tigers, wild boar, deer, water buffalo, monkeys and smaller mammals and reptiles had escaped unscathed.


    And while large turtles have been found dead in the debris along the shore of Indonesia's devastated Aceh province, the tsunami's impact on wildlife was limited, said Frank Momberg, coordinator for emergency response in Aceh for the conservation group Fauna & Flora International.

    Nevertheless, some scientists are looking for explanations of why some species behave strangely before natural catastrophes, by correlating the animals' sensory abilities with microscopic and invisible sensory stimuli.

    "I don't know if I'd call this a sixth sense so much as a better sense," Grant said. "Most animals know that when the ground starts to shake, something is wrong."

    Animals' sensory physiology -- supersensitive to sound, temperature, touch, vibration, electrostatic and chemical activity and magnetic fields -- gives them a head start in the days and hours before natural calamities.

    "It appears a lot of animals have sensory organs that detect these micro-tremors and micro-changes that we cannot possibly monitor," said George Pararas-Carayannis, a former University of Hawaii oceanographer and geophysicist who leads the Tsunami Society. "It's a sensitivity that we humans don't have. But animals through millions of years of evolution have developed it, and that's how they have been able to survive as a species. It is run or perish."

    Research shows that many fish are sensitive to low-frequency vibrations and detect tremors long before humans. The bullhead catfish detects magnitude 2 earthquakes -- so weak that people can't feel them at the top of 10-story buildings, said John Caprio, a biological sciences professor at Louisiana State University specializing in fish senses.

    Other animals are also extremely sensitive to ground vibrations. Lynette Hart, professor of animal behavior at UC Davis, said that's what probably cued the elephants, which most likely felt the quake in their feet and trunks.

    With the elephant's intelligence -- its brain is the largest of terrestrial creatures -- "they can figure out what direction the stimulus is coming from, how strong it is and what evasive action to take," she said.

    Some animals may have heard the tsunami coming from the moment the quake erupted under the ocean. Species of birds, dogs, elephants, tigers and other animals can detect infrasound -- frequencies in the range of 1 to 3 hertz, compared with humans' 100- to 200-hertz range, said psychobiologist James Walker, director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University. "It's sensitivity to such a low frequency range that most people wouldn't call it sound anymore."

    "Canines' sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times superior to that of humans," said Walker, who is starting research to train dogs to detect bladder and prostate cancer in human urine. Dogs' olfactory senses are so sensitive --

    they're said to be able to smell fear -- that it's possible they could pick up on chemical changes in the air before an earthquake.

    There's evidence not all animals pick up on disasters, cautioned Ben Hart, Lynette Hart's husband and a UC Davis professor of animal physiology. His studies have shown that domestic animals' pre-quake behavior is inconsistent. "It is only a few earthquakes that are preceded by unusual behavior," he said. "Most are not, and we don't have the slightest idea why

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