As a child growing up, my great grandmother, born in 1895, taught me that when the leaves of trees turned over, the trees were thirsty and rain would come soon. When a storm brewed, horses would wildly run around all over their pasture. Birds are said to become extremely hyper in flight, as they sound the alarm to warn of bad weather coming. There were various other signs that she and others taught me, in which animals and plant-life supposedly foretold the weather. Was this superstition or is there some truth to these observations and statements made by our ancestors?
Upon testing such beliefs over a lifetime, I soon learned many of them appeared accurate and just before the earthquake in Virginia, various animals behaved in unusual manners, just before it struck. The Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park staff recognized changes in the behaviours of various animals at the zoo and documented some of them.
These are a few of the noted behaviours of various animals prior to the quake on August 23, 2011:
• The earthquake hit the Great Ape House and Think Tank Exhibit during afternoon feeding time.
• About five to ten seconds before the quake, many of the apes, including Kyle (an orangutan) and Kojo (a Western lowland gorilla), abandoned their food and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in the exhibit.
• About three seconds before the quake, Mandara (a gorilla) let out a shriek and collected her baby, Kibibi, and moved to the top of the tree structure as well.
• Iris (an orangutan) began “belch vocalizing”—an unhappy/upset noise normally reserved for extreme irritation—before the quake and continued this vocalization following the quake.
• The red ruffed lemurs sounded an alarm call about 15 minutes before the quake and then again just after it occurred.
• The howler monkeys sounded an alarm call just after the earthquake.
• The black-and-rufous giant elephant shrew hid in his habitat and refused to come out for afternoon feeding.
• The lion pride was outside. They all stood still and faced the building, which rattled during the quake. All settled down within minutes.
• Damai (a female Sumatran tiger) jumped at the start of the earthquake in a startled fashion. Her behavior returned to normal after the quake.
It is possible the other animals felt the beginnings of the quake long before humans did. Given the need for alertness to survive, other animals may be more sensitive to atmospheric and environmental changes and act accordingly to survive or when they feel threatened.
Even in 2008, China recorded the behaviours of various animals, days before their earthquake. However, we have asked if animals really can warn us of bad weather for centuries, but the yearly celebration of Groundhog’s Day often fails when predicting how much longer winter will last. Yet, animals have shown odd behaviours right before sever weather and the questions still come as to whether or not they know something we do not about nature and when it changes. Even plants have shown changes before a change in weather too.
How did the animals know the earthquake was coming?
Iris, a beautiful red-orange orangutan, who is usually calm and unflappable, “lost her cool, emitting a loud, guttural cry, known to scientists as belch-vocalizing” Tuesday, about five to ten seconds before the quake hit. The zookeeper saw no evidence as to why Iris would suddenly get upset until the earth shook.
“Animals seem to know,” she said Wednesday. “You always hear it anecdotally, but this is the first time I’ve seen it.”
Almost all the animals, except the panda, reacted minutes, even seconds before the humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Just as my great grandmother said when I was little.
Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend.
Californians may scoff and laugh at the East Coast’s reactions to the quake, but I find it interesting that zoologists observed the very things I observed, since my great grandmother taught me “the legend”. Here in lies another scientific mystery, at least in my opinion, and scientists should research it, so we have hard, solid facts as to why animals behave as they do before inclement weather.
For years, I observed my various pets from horses to rabbits and even cows to dogs and cats. All of them reacted in various ways, as they signalled something was wrong with nature. Then I would look at the trees to see if they “spoke” of rain or if the sky darkened. If the trees flipped their leaves and grey clouds hovered overhead, I would wait and see if rain or a bad storm came. More often than not, something happened by way of wet weather. Other animal caregivers and nature lovers report doing similar and have discovered similar changes and patterns in behaviours.
Rodeo announcer and horse trainer Don Jesser can tell when the weather is going to change, just by watching his horses.
He said, "I call it a second sense about weather changes. In the winter time, you'll see them run, kick, and buck, it's what I call warming up, because there's a storm brewing. (video on site)
Again, this description of horses was much similar to what my great grandmother said of horses too. Are these folk tales or is there something to our observations?
The zoologists at the National Zoological Park in Virginia noticed the behaviours in their animals too, moments before the earthquake struck.
But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.
This may be the case for those who not sensitive to atmospheric changes. Those who are sensitive might feel the changes along with the animals. Some people report feeling minor quakes that other humans, less sensitive, do not appear to notice. Therefore, humans sensitive to small weak tremors might feel the same thing other animals feel, thus more observant of nature. Once scientists discover the answer to how animals know, maybe we will know why some humans are sensitive to small quakes.
In reference to other animals and not humans, the zoo’s senior curator stated:
“They’re more sensitive to the environment than we are,” said Brandie Smith, senior curator for mammals. “I’m not surprised at all that they’re able to intuit that these things are going on. That’s how they survive.”
I mentioned survival earlier in this article. If survival is the key word, then the possibility most humans lost this feature over the course of time is great. In modern society, most people do not pay attention to such things, relying solely on modern technology and not instinct that is still innate to other animals.
According to Don Moore, “Elephants, we know from experimental studies, have an infrasonic ability. They can hear sounds underneath the level of sounds we can hear.”
That is also another possibility. Sounds vibrate and we can feel them, but other animals’ hearing is more acute than ours is.
According to this last article, scientists observed wild animals reacting similarly sometimes days before an earthquake occurred. The article mentions wildlife scientists observed snakes emerging from their holes in the dead of winter weeks before an earthquake struck. However, scientists have not constructed a workable hypothesis to test this long held belief of even our elders, not even for earthquakes (see #18).
The Washington Post made a similar conclusion:
… [S]cientists have struggled to convert anecdotal evidence into testable hypotheses and robust conclusions that can be published in peer-reviewed journals. Even the Haicheng case is squishy, because there were numerous foreshocks that may have rattled the snakes and inspired the public officials to take action.
Susan Hough, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who has researched earthquake predictions, said the simplest explanation for what happened at the zoo on Tuesday involves what scientists call the P wave.
What are P waves?
P waves are one of two waves generated by earthquakes. They are the weak fast-moving “Primary waves” of an earthquake and the more powerful slower Secondary waves, or S waves, which forces the ground up and down, follow about fifteen seconds after the P waves.
This would explain the zoo animals’ behaviours before the quake. It could explain the few humans who feel the little quakes that most humans do not, also. We will probably learn that after we figure out how and why other animals behave as they do before changes in nature.
However, the last article reminds us that this issue concerning other animals knowing bad weather before humans do, remains an issue and other animals could be more sensitive to weather changes than we are. Scientists have not ruled out such a possibility and animal and nature lovers will continue observe them to find the answers and if the various old wives tales of our ancestors are true.