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A Sense Of Doom: Animal Instinct For Disaster

Scientists Investigate Wildlife's Possible Warning Systems

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page C01

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.

An elephant clears a path in Banda Aceh. Sensitive to ground vibrations, elephants may have detected the undersea quake long before the tsunami hit. (Beawiharta -- Reuters)

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," says Frank Momberg, coordinator for emergency response in Aceh for the conservation group Fauna & Flora International.

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 hard-wiring that can detect earthquakes ahead of time, which one day might be replicated in man-made instruments.

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.

After the Dec. 26 tsunami, a Danish man staying in Ao Sane Beach, north of Phuket, wrote on a Danish Web site: "Dogs are smarter than all of us. . . . [They] started running away up to the hilltops long before we even realized what was coming."

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, says 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.

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 says. "Most animals know that when the ground starts to shake something is wrong."

Small Changes, Big Hints

Animals' sensory physiology -- super-sensitive 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," says 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," says Pararas-Carayannis, author of the 2001 book "The Big One: The Next Great California Earthquake -- Why, Where, and When It Will Happen."

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