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The sixth sense of animals: an earthquake early warning system?

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Continuous monitoring of animals with motion sensors can improve earthquake prediction

Even today, no one can reliably predict the time and place of the earthquake. However, eyewitnesses have repeatedly reported that animals behave unusually before the earthquake. In an international cooperation project, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz / Radolfzel and the Center for Excellence Group for the Advanced Study of Group Behavior at the University of Konstanz have investigated whether cows, sheep and dogs can detect early signs of earthquakes. To do this, they connected animal sensors in an earthquake-prone area in northern Italy and recorded their movements over several months. Movement data show that animals were unusually disturbed in the hours before the earthquakes. As animals approached the epicenter of the impending earthquake, they began to act unusually. Thus, the movement features of different animal species in different regions can provide clues as to the location and time of the impending earthquake.

Damage in the aftermath of the earthquake in northern Italy.

© MPIAB / MaxCine

Experts disagree on whether earthquakes can be predicted exactly. However, animals seem to sense imminent danger hours in advance. For example, there are reports that wild animals leave their sleeping and nesting places right before strong earthquakes and that pets become restless. However, these anecdotal accounts often do not stand up to scientific scrutiny because the definition of unusual behavior is often very unclear and the observation period is very short. There are other factors that can explain the behavior of animals.

In order to be able to use animal activity patterns as a type of earthquake early warning system, animals will have to exhibit measurable behavioral changes. Moreover, if they do react to weak physical changes just before the earthquake, they must react more forcefully as they approach the epicenter.

Animals with motion sensors

In an international cooperation project, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Radolfzell / Konstanz and the Center for Advanced Study of Group Behavior, Excellence Group at the University of Konstanz, investigated whether animals really did. On an Italian farm in an earthquake-prone area, they attached accelerometers to the hoops of six cows, five sheep and two dogs who had already shown unusual behavior before earthquakes. Then the researchers recorded their movements continuously over several months. During this period, official authorities reported about 18,000 earthquakes in the area. In addition to the many small, unnoticeable earthquakes, there were also 12 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or higher on the Richter scale.

Then the researchers chose the earthquakes that caused statistically relevant ground movements on the farm. These included strong earthquakes of up to 28 km as well as weaker earthquakes, whose centers were very close to the farm. However, instead of explicitly searching for abnormal behaviors in the run-up to these events, researchers chose a more cautious approach. They first distinguished all behavioral changes for animals that were unusual according to objective statistical criteria. “In this way, we ensure that we not only create correlations retroactively, but also that we already have a model that can be used for prediction,” said Martin Wickelsky, director of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior and lead investigator at the center. For advanced study of group behavior.

The data was measured as the body acceleration of each farm animal (indicating activity level) – it was evaluated using statistical models derived from financial econometrics. “Because each animal interacts differently in size, speed and according to species, animal data is similar to data for heterogeneous financial investors,” explains co-author Winfred Buhlmeyer, professor of econometrics at Konstanz University and lead investigator at the Center for Applicants studying group behavior. Scientists also studied other disturbances such as natural changes in animal activity patterns throughout the day.

Unusual behavior patterns

In this way, the researchers discovered unusual behavior patterns up to 20 hours before the earthquake. “The closer the animals are to the center of the impending shock, the sooner they will change their behavior. This is exactly what you expect when material changes occur frequently in the center of the impending earthquake and become weaker with increasing distance.” However, this effect was only evident when researchers looked at all the animals together. “Collectively, animals seem to exhibit unrecognizable capabilities on an individual level,” says Wickelski. It is still unclear how animals can feel the impending earthquakes. Animals may feel the ionization of air due to large rock pressures in quake regions with their fur. Animals can also smell gases from quartz crystals before an earthquake.

The real-time data that researchers measured and recorded since December 2019 shows what an animal earthquake early warning system might look like: a chip on the collar sends motion data to a central computer every three minutes. This results in a warning signal if you record significantly increased animal activity for at least 45 minutes. The researchers once received such a warning. “After three hours, a small earthquake rocked the area,” says Wickelski. “The epicenter was just below the animal stables.”

However, before animal behavior can be used to predict earthquakes, researchers need to monitor more animals over longer periods of time in different earthquake regions around the world. For this, they want to use the global animal monitoring system Icarus on the ISS, which will be operational in a few weeks.

Icarus, a science project managed by Martin Wickelski, is a joint project funded and implemented by the German Space Center (DLR) and the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos and supported by the European Space Agency (ESA).

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