Animals can predict earthquakes

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell/Konstanz and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, have recently been able to prove that some animals have the ability to predict earthquakes - sometimes hours before they strike.

Cattle in Pasture

A placid scene - but researchers believe cows to be amongst those animals able to sense earthquakes hours before they occur.

Image by Wix

It is 4th January 1975, Yingkou County, China and Cao Xianquing is a worried man.


The water levels in the community wells have dropped; the water itself tastes bitter and animals are behaving unusually.

To anyone else, these might have been dismissed as just unexplained phenomena or at least unconnected, but Cao knows differently.

Known as 'Mr Earthquake Office', Cao heads the earthquake prediction service in the town of Dashiqiao. Although not formally trained in the sciences, Cao is nevertheless an enthusiastic collector of  information.

His journal entry from 4th January reads as follows

“According to reports on 4 January from a number of units of our county, water level of wells in Jianyi Commune generally dropped (one well that originally had a water level of 1 m below ground is now dry), water level of the Xiangfang reservoir dropped by 0.5 m, one well in Sanjiazi Brigade of Weiziyu Commune dropped by 70 cm (today) and its water has turned muddy and bitter, and two snakes were found (still kept) in Laodong Brigade of Boluopu Commune during 28 December to 3 January.”

The report of 'two snakes' seems innocuous enough, but they were not the only ones.


Altogether, nearly a hundred snakes were reported by worried locals as coming out of hibernation - in mid winter when temperatures were regularly below freezing. At the same time other unusual animal behaviour was also being collated, including reports of apparently dazed mice in the streets and frogs coming out of hibernation.


These reports, together with clusters, or 'swarms' of small earthquakes in the area in the preceding months were a worrying sign that the region was building up to a much bigger event.




At 7.36pm on the night of 4th February, it suddenly did, when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck, devastating property and infrastructure, burying 180KM 2 of farmland in sand, injuring over 24,000 people and toppling thousands of bridges and thousands of miles of pipeline. The economic cost was estimated at 1 Billion Yuan (£430 million pounds in today's money) but crucially, the number of dead was relatively low, 2041 according to official figures, in large part due to Cao's keen reporting in which unusual animal behaviour played no small part, allowing officials to send out advance warnings to its citizens.

Animals' seeming ability to sense impending disaster is well documented. One of the very earliest accounts comes from Aelian in 373 BC who documented animals behaving unusually and leaving the ancient Greek city of Helice, 5 days prior to a large earthquake and tsunami.

However the science behind it is still not fully understood and little work has gone into studying the phenomenon. The US Geological Survey, for example, did conduct some experiments but faced with conflicting data then abandoned these in the 1970's. Its' website dismisses the notion due to lack of '...consistent and reliable behaviour prior to seismic events...'

In a science article, author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake insists that a reproducible experiments linking animal behaviour and earthquakes could still be made, despite the difficulties and researchers at the Max Planck Institute (not a single entity but in fact a number of research institutions) appear to have done just that.

In a unique study, they fitted cows, sheep and dogs with collars that accurately measured their speed and movement in a region of Italy well-known for earthquakes. After filtering the data for other unusual behaviour, they appear to have found a correlation - but only when looking at the animals' collective behaviour.



"Collectively, the animals seem to show abilities that are not so easily recognized on an individual level," says Martin Wikelski, Institute Director and Principal Investigator, in a recent science article. The researchers found that the animals appeared to change their movements up to 20 hours before earthquakes hit the region, giving hope that an early-warning system could indeed be developed. 

This is not the first scientific study into the phenomenon by the Institute. In an ongoing project, dubbed Icarus, thousands of birds are being tagged and their movements monitored following smaller successful trials which looked at the behaviour of Goats near Mount Etna and toads in the city of L'Aquila in Italy which suffered a major 'quake in April 2009.

But watching animal behaviour alone is not a reliable system for warning of impending disaster. Even though it is often cited, the 1975 Haicheng 'quake used a variety of sources to calculate the risk, including foreshocks which preceded the main event. These precursors of major earthquakes have in some instances been shown to increase in intensity as pressures build up between tectonic plates.

Although the link between animals and their ability to sense earth movements is becoming clearer, the actual mechanisms are still shrouded in mystery.

The animals may sense seismic waves—it could P, S or surface waves–generated by foreshocks,” says Heiko Woith at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in the Seismological Society of America.


Another option could be secondary effects triggered by the foreshocks, like changes in groundwater or release of gases from the ground which might be sensed by the animals.”

What is clear is that despite all our advances in detection technology there is still much we do not understand about the links between what we call the sixth sense and our everyday experiences.

Nick MacIneskar 2020


In the days leading up to a major earthquake in China, nearly a hundred snakes were found to have left the safety of their hibernation burrows and come to the surface - despite the winter weather which could kill them. 

Behaviour which is out of the ordinary prior to a disaster is a well-documented phenomenon, but not clearly understood. 

A sixth sense?

Sichuan Earthquake Damaged Buildings Sit

At 2.28pm on the 12 May 2008, an impact between two tectonic plates caused a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, China.

Measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, and lasting for just two minutes, the quake killed an estimated 90,000 people, injured 375,000 more, with a cost of $450 billion.

Further smaller 'quakes hit the area in August and September that same year

Sichuan, China

A short BBC video about the search for the lost city of Helike (Helice)

Video Credit: BBC

Volcanic landscape

In a unique experiment, researchers in Italy fitted mountain goats living on Mount Etna, a known active volcano, with radio tracking collars. The result?

The team recorded unusual behaviour and movements in the animals on 4th January 2012, just 6 hours before the volcano blew.

Research such as this is beginning to help us predict potentially devastating volcanic and seismic events.

Tracking Goats

Hurricane Damage

Whist we understand the mechanisms behind natural disasters like cyclones, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the reported 'sixth sense' of animals in predicting them is less well-studied. 

That is changing, though, and large institutions are conducting increasingly sophisticated studies into the phenomenon.

Predicting Disaster