Aug. 24, 2011 -- While science can't confirm that animals can predict when a natural disaster may strike, evidence has accumulated that suggests they sense something's up well before humans do.
Reports have surfaced that animals at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., showed signs of distress seconds before their trainers felt the earth shift during the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked much of the Eastern seaboard Tuesday.
About five to 10 seconds before the earthquake hit, many of the apes left their food during the afternoon feeding and climbed to the top of the treelike structure in their exhibit. One gorilla named Mandara shrieked three seconds before the earthquake hit, grabbed her baby and joined the others there.
Some of the smaller animals also reacted. The red-ruffed lemurs called out 15 minutes before the quake. Zookeepers also reported that the black-and-rufous giant elephant shrew hid in its habitat and "refused to come out for afternoon feeding."
The zoo's 64 flamingos also rushed to form a group before the shaking started, and keepers of the zoo's beavers and ducks noticed that they all ran into the water before the earthquake started and stayed there for about an hour.
"They are responding to danger," said Brandie Smith from the National Zoo. "So when there is danger present, a lot of animals go to the place where they are safest from danger."At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the dolphins -- in the midst of a training session -- began to swim away from their trainers, paired up and began swimming rapidly around the tank about 10 seconds before the seismic waves began. They continued to swim as long as the earthquake lasted, and a little while afterward.
Closer to the epicenter, the Richmond Zoo says the chimps began "acting up and hollering" during and after the quake. Birds also reacted, flying around in their enclosures when the quake began.
While it may not be a good ide to use your pet as a disaster alarm (they seem to sense disturbances only seconds before anything happens), some seismologists believe that animals do sense electrical impulses created by the earth's movement before humans do.
"I think they are so much more sensitive," said Smith. "I mean they have to survive out in the wild, so they are sensitive to the things that are going on."
The U.S. Geological Survey says that "unusual animal behavior" before a significant earthquake can be traced to 373 B.C., when rats, weasels, snakes and centipedes reportedly left their habitats to find safer ground days before a destructive earthquake.
In 1975, Chinese officials actually ordered the evacuation of an entire city with a population of close to a million people because of peculiar animal behavior. In "When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction," physical chemist Helmut Tributsch described the behavior that led officials to take this action.
"Geese flew into trees," he wrote. "Pigs bit at each other or dug beneath the fences of their sties." When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the next day, 2,000 fatalities and many other injuries were reported. However, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that "the number of fatalities and injuries would have exceeded 150,000 if no earthquake prediction and evacuation had been made."
More recently, witnesses reported that elephants and monkeys in Sri Lanka and Thailand moved to higher ground before the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 150,000 people. Cattle, dogs and other domestic animals also showed signs of distress.
"Very few humans notice the smaller P wave that travels the fastest from the earthquake source and arrives before the larger S wave," said a report from USGS. "But many animals with more keen senses are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives."
Animal lovers, for their part, already seem sure. A new AP-Petside.com poll reveals that approximately two-thirds of American pet owners believe their pets have a sixth sense about bad weather. Seventy-two percent of those who subscribe to this belief are dog owners. Sixty-six percent own cats.
Even beyond weather, the poll indicates that approximately half of Americans think their pet has a sixth sense about something bad happening. Forty-seven percent of dog owners and 41 percent of cat owners insist they have been alerted by their pets on such occasions in the past.
The successful evacuation of Haicheng, China, in 1975 granted the theory of animal premonition a degree of legitimacy. But more research is needed before into animals' "sixth sense." If it's true, animals could give a a quick warning of something yet to come.