Can Toads Predict Earthquakes?

By Sadie Bass

Mar 31, 2010 12:55pm

ABC's Lauren Stiffelman reports from London: Toads may be the key in predicting earthquakes days before they hit, according to scientists, making the amphibians a potentially useful ally. In the study published in the Journal of Zoology, a colony of toads deserted their mating site three days before an earthquake struck in L’Aquila, Italy last year.  They reacted despite the colony being 46 miles from the quake’s epicenter.  No toads returned to the site until ten days later, after the last of the significant aftershocks had finished. The discovery was made by accident by biologist Dr. Rachel Grant of The Open University in England while she was studying the effects of lunar cycles on the toads’ behavior and reproduction. Male toads usually stay at the breeding sites until spawning is complete, but 96% of them abandoned the pool five days before the quake and Grant said numbers remained low until 10 days afterwards.  The number of pairs declined to zero just three days before the earthquake and stayed low until after the last aftershock. How the toads sensed the earthquake is unclear, but Grant found scientists noticed disruptions in the ionosphere, the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the earth’s atmosphere, at the time of the L’Aquila earthquake, which Grants says the toads may have detected.  “Suddenly the toads were all gone, disappeared, not a single toad, and that carried on for days, which was very unusual.  And after the earthquake struck the toads came back, and that was very convincing evidence.” Grant said there is also data that found radio signals were disturbed in the area give days before the earthquake, so there may also be a link between toad behavior and radio signals.   The finding adds to centuries of accounts of animal earthquake predictions, dating back to at least 373 BC, when historians say animals including rats, snakes and weasels flocked out of Helice just days before a quake devastated the Greek city.  More recently there have been reports of catfish moving violently, dogs biting more frequently, bees leaving their hives in a panic, and fish, rodents, and snakes exhibiting strange behavior before earthquakes.  There have only been two previous studies of animals before, during, and after an earthquake.  In one study of ants the insects didn’t have any reaction, and in a study of birds they fled the area 20 minutes before the quake.  Grant said it is very difficult to conduct formal studies of animal earthquake prediction given the rarity and unpredictability of earthquakes, and she was accidently in the right place at the right time. Grant’s study may not tangibly prove anything at the moment, but she hopes further collaboration and research will be conducted on the subject.

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