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Monday Reads: The Animals Predicting Earthquakes Edition


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View Shirley Hao's blog posts
06 September 2011, 7:48 AM
Did National Zoo residents call the quake before it hit?
Kibibi the western lowland gorilla says, "It's an earthquake! Hang on tight!" (National Zoological Park)

Two weeks ago, a peculiar sensation was experienced up and down the Northeast. Some thought it might have been the zombie apocalypse finally unfolding; others, that perhaps they had ingested something disagreeable for lunch. Regardless, it gave more than a few people the unexpected opportunity to stretch their legs—and brush up on disaster preparedness.

Slipping in right before the windy and wet arrival of Hurricane Irene was Washington, D.C.’s strongest earthquake in nearly 70 years. Centered at tiny Mineral, VA, the 5.8 magnitude quake was quite unexpected—who could have predicted its arrival that sunny, summer day?? I’ll tell you who: Iris, Kyle, and Mandara (among others).

In one of the most interesting reports to come out of the Mineral quake, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park documented fascinating early warning signs observed among their many and varied residents. Before humans felt a hint of shuddering, rolling or rumbling, inhabitants of locales as varied as the Great Ape House and the Bird House were apparently already reacting …

Here’s a rundown: Jessie Cohen / NZP the red-ruffed lemurs led the way, sounding an alarm call 15 minutes before the fact. Then, several seconds before the quake arrived, they were joined by NZP Kyle the orangutan and NZP Kojo the western lowland gorilla, who left lunch for the relative safety of a tall structure in their enclosure. NZP Mandara the gorilla promptly scooped up her baby, NZP Kibibi, and joined Kojo, while NZP Iris the orangutan began “belch vocalizing.” The 64-member-strong NZP flock of flamingos sought safety in numbers, hurriedly assembling into a group huddle.
( Residents of D.C. would later affect a similar strategy as they streamed out of office buildings.)

As the quake struck, NZP beavers, NZP the black and rufous giant elephant-shrew, NZP hooded mergansers, NZP Eld's deer, NZP Murphy the Komodo dragon and NZP tufted deer variously stopped lunching, surveyed the vicinity and sought refuge indoors, outdoors, or in the water. NZP The snakes were roused out of their mid-day torpor, while NZP Damai the Sumatran tiger, who had recently moved from San Diego, seemed perplexed (perhaps wondering if earthquakes had followed her from tremor-prone California).

On the Earthjustice front, our Washington, D.C. and Policy & Legislation staff mostly left their shaking building (except for a hardy few who brushed off the inconvenience and continued on working through the minute-long rumble). Farther up north, Earthjusticers in the Northeast Regional office were about to evacuate their building with all the other humans, when the earthquake-savvy among them set them straight: if you’re indoors when the quake hits, duck and cover under sturdy furniture. (Particularly in city streets, people risk injury from falling glass and other debris.)

After the quake concluded, NZP the howler monkeys quite helpfully sounded an alarm—just in case anyone was unsure if anything really had happen.

Notable zoo inhabitants who opted out of participation before, during or after the quake included the giant pandas NZP Mei Xiang and NZP Tian Tian, who kept calm and carried on, and NZP the Przewalski’s horses and NZP scimitar-horned oryx, who “hardly noticed, although those that were inside did amble outside eventually” (perhaps to see what all the fuss was about).

Anecdotal tales of animals’ premonition to earthquakes is rife through the ages, from rats deserting the ancient Greek city of Helike in 373 B.C.E. shortly before it was destroyed by an earthquake, to thousands of toads taking to the streets two days before China’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. In a more recent incident, Sophie the Lab’s dramatic anticipation of a January 2010 6.5 magnitude earthquake in California’s Humboldt County was captured by surveillance cameras in the newsroom of the Times-Standard:

Given the difficulty of studying earthquakes in a controlled environment, seismologists are far from able to definitively say if and why animals really can and do react to quakes before they strike. One of the more popular theory speculates that the animals—who generally possess more sensitive senses than us dull humans—are reacting to the weaker “P” (as in Primary) waves that precede the more noticeable and powerful “S” (secondary) waves of an earthquake.

Finally, not to be left out, Earthjustice’s Oakland office which houses California Regional, International, and Headquarters got their own earthquake about 24 hours later, with a 3.5 quake centered near San Leandro gently rocking the building just as Earthjustice National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye was kicking off The Chaos Of Clean-Up tele-press conference.

Coincidence? Or literally earth-shattering news? You be the judge: check out our newly released report (photo slideshow and audio included) which brings to light disturbing gaps in knowledge regarding the chemical dispersants used in unprecedented quantities following last year’s Gulf oil spill. The report is particularly relevant as Shell Oil is gearing up to drill in the Arctic Ocean this coming summer.

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