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Animal Storm Detection

December 31, 2007

A listener asks: Can animals sense natural disasters before they happen?


Earthquakes and elephants. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Eleven-year-old Shelby Shank of Visalia, California called with this question:

How come animals can sense storms and things like tsunamis when all the elephants ran to the top of the mountains?

We consulted elephant expert Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of Stanford University. She says that elephants have special pads in their feet for sensing vibrations in the ground. So it’s hypothetically possible that they could feel an earthquake coming.

CAITLIN O’CONNELL-RODWELL (Stanford University):
After the 2004 tsunami, there were many reports of elephants responding to the earthquake. And it was fascinating to me as a scientist who’s interested in the vibration sensitivity of elephants.

But she says the only way to really answer the question would be a controlled experiment, unlikely since you can’t predict natural disasters. If you have a science question, call us at 1-800-why-isit. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.