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Earthquake coming? Ask your pandas, snakes and chickens

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-01-20 11:36

There are more things in heaven and earth, as Hamlet said, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Under that category would come the mission of seven observation centers recently set up by seismologists in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province.

Their quest: To see if animals really can sense that an earthquake is about to happen.

"Animals sometimes become stressed before an earthquake," Zhao Bing, chief of scientific monitoring for the Nanjing Seismological Bureau, told the BBC.

Stressful behavior on the part of animals before a temblor has usually all been observed in hindsight, after the event — birds wagging their tails like dogs, toads abandoning their ponds, snakes vacating their holes during hibernation only to freeze in the snow, mules bucking and kicking rather than eating their feed, insects swarming near seashores.

As George Pararas-Carayannis, a former Army Corps of Engineers seismologist, notes, in 1920, prior to the strongest earthquake to hit China — an 8.5 Richter scale monster in Ninghsia province — "wolves were seen running around in packs, dogs were barking unusually and sparrows were flying around wildly."

Two hours before the magnitude 7.4 quake of July 18, 1969, in the Pohai Sea, denizens of the Tientsin People's Park Zoo — deer, yaks, tigers and even giant pandas — sparked concern among their keepers because of their frenzied behavior.

Chinese seismologists had already set up animal-based observation stations — in Hsingtai province in 1968 and Sinkiang province in 1971 — and so far they have reportedly predicted two major earthquakes.

Naturally this phenomenon doesn't just happen in China, as this writer can attest.

In the early hours of Sept 25, 1997, at 2:30 am to be exact, I was woken from a deep sleep in a bed on a small farm in Assisi, Italy, by the commotion of the chickens, dogs, horses, even the cats outside the window. The room started to rattle as if jackhammers were trying to rip through the wall. Then came the distinct sound of a runaway train barreling straight on and just as it seemed about to plow through the wall, the room started to heave and bend like a raft riding deep waves.

The row the animals put up lasted for two or three minutes after the earthquake had passed. Then they quieted down. The next morning, as the damage from the 5.5 quake was being assessed all around Assisi, most — make that all — of the other guests at the country inn checked out and were heading back to Rome. But I was on a prepaid horseback vacation and had only ridden two of the four days I had coming to me. I wanted my money's worth. The guide and I got back on our horses and headed up Mount Subasio.

My horse was a bay named Fortunato and he had been well behaved on our two previous rides. On this day, after the pre-dawn quake, he was being a complete pain in the neck, fidgeting, dancing, rearing, trying to tug the reins free.

Just before noon — at 11:43 to be exact — I had gotten off of the horse and was taking pictures of a medieval convent, when the big one hit. A 6.0 quake came at us from the east, moving through the ground in ripples like the wake of boat. The ground really does turn to jelly under your feet.

Tragically, the quake killed six people (who were inspecting the damage to the St Francis basilica when the plaster Giotto frescos were shaken loose from the ceiling vault and buried them) and left 20,000 homeless.

But after the quake passed, the horse calmed completely down and was as compliant as a well-trained dog. I sensed he really knew all morning that the big one was yet to come and now the coast was clear.

As Pararas-Carayanni says, researchers are finding it difficult to understand the bio-mechanics of the response stimuli in animals that alert them to an impending tectonic event. Is it minute shuttering? Chemicals released from the soil? Ultra high- or low-frequency noises? Electromagnetic changes in the earth's crust? Every living cell, after all, is a kind of "electrical device" interconnected with every other.

Duplicating these sensory responses of animals — whatever they end up being — could conceivably lead to instruments that actually predict earthquakes. That would be one ground-breaking app.

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