Can animals predict natural disasters?

Paul, an Octopus, accurately predicted World Cup match victories in 2010 by selecting boxes containing flags of the competing nations. Oscar, a cat in a Rhode Island nursing home, accurately predicted the deaths of more than 50 residents, offering them comfort in their final hours. Medical Alert dogs can detect dangerous blood sugar levels and certain cancers in humans just by smelling their breath.

Animals have acute senses that allow them to experience things we miss. For example, humans have 5 million scent receptors while Dachs-hunds have 125 million. Bloodhounds top all other dogs with 300 million scent receptors. Many creatures, including horses, cats and snakes, have a special auxiliary olfactory organ that gives them an even richer scent experience.

When it comes to hearing, most animals can hear high-pitched sounds that are completely inaudible to us. Most nocturnal mammals can see in what humans would consider to be darkness. Whiskers give animals yet another way to detect subtle changes in the environment.

With these impressive senses, some scientists wonder if animals can predict natural disasters, and there is some evidence that they can.

A report following the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami told of an elephant suddenly trumpeting, breaking free of a tether and fleeing to high ground. Officials at Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park reported very few animal deaths from this disaster although the park is home to hundreds of elephants, leopards and monkeys. They believe these animals were able to sense the danger long before humans did.

Some scientists think animals might have an early warning ability because they hear infrasounds produced by earthquakes, volcanoes and storms that are inaudible to humans. Others think animals are able to sense subtle vibrations or other changes to the environment. Geophysicist Dr. Ikeya has found that some animals and fish react to minor changes in electromagnetic fields.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s take on this: “Even though there have been documented cases of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of an earthquake has not been made.”

Even if animals cannot predict natural disasters, those of us who share our lives with pets and enjoy observing animals in nature are blessed by their rich senses and fascinating behaviors.

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