Study tracks animals’ ability to predict natural disasters
PIEVE TORINA, Italy — After a series of powerful earthquakes struck Italy last year, Martin Wikelski rushed here to test a hunch that has tantalized scientists and thinkers for millenniums: Can animals anticipate natural disasters?
A German scientist, Wikelski tagged several animals on a farm in Pieve Torina in the Marches region of central Italy in October to monitor their behavior, hoping that if it changed in some consistent way before an earthquake, it could be used as an early warning system and potentially save thousands of lives. One warm morning this spring, he came back for the findings.
“Wow, it really looks as though something is there,” he said excitedly.
The series of earthquakes in Italy began in August, with other major temblors coming in October and January, accompanied by thousands of aftershocks. The calamity has cost $26 billion in damage, rendered thousands homeless and caused more than 300 deaths.
While Wikelski could not reveal the details of his findings before publication in a scientific journal, he hinted that the data showed animals moving in a consistent way in the hours before the quake.
On the basis of prior research, Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, applied in 2013 for a patent: “Disaster Alert Mediation Using Nature.” The patent is pending.
The recurring earthquakes in Marches and other parts of central Italy presented the chance to record a wealth of data about animal responses to further test the theory.
“We are really excited because this is the first time we could tag animals before, during and after a major earthquake series,” Wikelski said.
The hope is that once the animal data is compared with the earthquake data from the area — using earthquakes of a magnitude of 4 as a cutoff — it will show distinctive behavior before, during and after an earthquake. From late October to April, there were 11 days with earthquakes measuring more than magnitude 4.
In the best case, the animals’ behavior in the hours leading up to an earthquake might act as an early warning system so that people could evacuate.
Florindo Angeli, right, and his son tagged animals at their farm in Pieve, Italy, in scientist Martin Wikelski’s study monitoring animal behavior before earthquakes, hoping that it may one day be used as an early warning system.