Whether or not animals have a sixth sense to predict earthquakes is a raging debate in scientific circles for long. But ask the layman, and most likely he would believe it is true.

Animals do show some unusual movements and activities before the shaking of the earth. It was way back in 373 B.C., that historians recorded animals, including rats, snakes and weasels, deserted the Greek city of Helice in droves just days before a quake devastated the place.

But science has not yet been able to locate what exactly they see and hear that leads to such behaviour. There has been no scientific evidence to establish they really discern something specific. Animals may sense the ionization of the air caused by the large rock pressures in earthquake zones with their fur. It is also conceivable that animals can smell gases released from quartz crystals before an earthquake.

There would be millions of pet owners across the world who would vouch for the fact that their pets did behave abnormally before a quake struck. There have been numerous stories of ants leaving their holes or birds making strange sounds at night, or even fish getting disturbed and aggressive have given weight to the theory of the sixth sense being more active in animals. However, there are scientists who call these sheer anecdotes or coincidences, without any consistent baking as a behavioural pattern in animals. No science can yet predict an earthquake.

Scientists around the world have been trying to find out for long if animals really could be used as a natural warning system before earthquakes. In a recent international cooperation project, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell/Konstanz and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour, a Cluster of Excellence at the University of Konstanz, investigated into this on an Italian farm prone to earthquakes.

 They attached accelerometers to the collars of six cows, five sheep, and two dogs that had already displayed unusual behaviour before earthquakes. The researchers then recorded their movements continuously over several months. During this period, official authorities reported about 18,000 earthquakes in the region.

In addition to many small quakes, there were also 12 earthquakes with a strength of 4 or higher on the Richter scale. The data — measured as body acceleration of each farm animal (indicating activity level) — were evaluated using statistical models drawn from financial econometrics.

In this way, the researchers discovered unusual behavioural patterns up to 20 hours before an earthquake. It was found that closer the animals were to the epicentre of the impending shock, the earlier they changed their behaviour. However, this effect was clear only when the researchers looked at all animals together. Collectively, the animals seem to show abilities that are not so easily recognized on an individual level.

Before the behaviour of animals can be used to predict earthquakes, researchers need to observe a larger number of animals over longer periods of time in different earthquake zones around the world. For this, they want to use the global animal observation system Icarus on the International Space Station ISS, which will start its scientific operation in a few weeks. We might hope some breakthrough in findings once such a global research goes underway. Till then, we can continue to rely on our pet dog.

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