Study tracks an­i­mals’ abil­ity to pre­dict nat­u­ral dis­as­ters

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HEALTH | SCIENCE - By Elis­a­betta Po­v­oledo

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.

Na­dia Shira Co­hen / New York Times

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.

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