Can Animals Sense Earthquakes First? Zoo Animals, Sensing Quake Early, Sound the Alarms

Aug 24, 2011 12:11pm

ABC News’ Sunlen Miller (@sunlenmiller) reports:

Do you want an early earthquake detection system? You might be best off adopting an ape, lemur or flamingo for a pet.

It seems some animals at the National Zoo sensed that the 5.8 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in seven decades which rocked the East Coast Tuesday, was coming.

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC said the vibrations from the earthquake were “keenly felt” by the animals, staff and visitors.  But more interesting is how some of those animals reacted before the earth started shaking below them, showing a sense that these zoo animals knew something was coming.

The National Zoo has catalogued changes in animal behavior recognized before, during and after the big East Coast quake.

The Great Apes knew it was coming apparently – about five to ten seconds before the earthquake hit many of the apes, such as Kyle, an orangutan and Kojo, a western lowland gorilla, left their food during afternoon feeding time and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in their exhibit.  Another ape, a gorilla named Mandara let out what an animal care taker described as a “shriek” and instinctively collected her baby and joined the other apes at the top of the tree structure as well. Another orangutan, Iris started “belch vocalizing” before and after the quake hit which the zoo keepers describe as a sound only used for “extreme irritation.”

Other animals serving as an early warning system? Small mammals.  The red ruffed lemurs called out a whole fifteen minutes before the quake.  Zookeepers reported that the black-and-rufous giant elephant shrew hid in his habitat and “refused to come out for afternoon feeding,” before the quake hit.

The flamingos too sensed the start of the quake. Just before the quake the zoo’s flock of 64 flamingos rushed and grouped themselves together where they remained huddled during the quake, the zoo says.

Many animals reacted to the shakes of the earthquake – but did not start acting up beforehand, indicating they likely did not sense the earthquake coming.

The snakes in the Reptile Discovery Center, normally inactive during the day withered during the quake.  The ducks immediately interested the water. Beavers stopped eating and jumped in the water too.  Damai, a female Sumatran tiger, jumped at the start of the earthquake but returned to normal after the Quake.

And then there were the animals who had didn’t seem to sense, feel or at least be worried about the Quake.

The Giant Pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, one of the most popular exhibits in the zoo had “no reaction” to the earthquake. The Prezwalski’s horses and scimitar-horned oryx “hardly noticed” the quake, zookeepers said.

Other zoo’s on the East Coast report similar animal activity both before and after the quake.

Closer to the epicenter, the Richmond Zoo says the chimps began “acting up and hollering” during and after the quake.  Zoo Spokesman Jim Andelin says lots of the primates seemed to be “pretty riled up.” A lot of the birds started flying around in their enclosures during the quake itself.

At the Baltimore Aquarium the dolphins were in a training session with their trainers in the tank. Trainers say about 10 seconds before the earthquake hit the dolphins started swimming away in pairs rapidly from the trainers. This lasted the course of the quake and then after for a short while.

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