A zoo in China has built observation decks so that employees can watch animals including chickens, pigs, and fish to see if they can accurately predict earthquakes.
According to one English-language Chinese news outlet, "At Banqiao ecological park... the behavior of around 200 pigs, 2,000 chickens, and fish in a 15-hectare pond are closely monitored to detect signals of an earthquake. Breeders here create daily reports regarding animal behavior for Nanjing's seismological departments." The news report noted that the park relies "mainly on employees closely watching the animals" for seismological significance.
Despite a few predictably sensationalized headlines about "psychic animals," there's no need to attribute any sort of ESP or psychic ability to possible animal earthquake detection.
Video: Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?
The belief that animals can detect earthquakes (as well as resulting tsunamis) is an old one, and has some scientific validity to it. The fact that animals have keener senses than humans is well-documented. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, birds can migrate using celestial cues, and bats can locate food with echoes. Elephants can detect faint vibrations and tremors (such as other elephants' footsteps) from fantastic distances.
Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction. If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger; the rest will follow-not necessarily due to some supernatural earthquake-detecting sense, but simple herd instinct.
It's also easy to misinterpret animal behavior. Last year a series of viral videos on social media claimed to show animals fleeing Yellowstone Park-perhaps ahead of a volcanic eruption-with commenters wondering if they too should be afraid. After all, something seemed to be making the animals act strangely.
However a closer look at the video revealed that instead of a herd of terrified bison streaming out of the area ahead of some impending disaster (as claimed), there was only a handful of bison who were trotting-not running in terror-and they were actually heading into the park and toward the dormant volcano.
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The Chinese zoo is conducting an interesting experiment, though there are some significant complications. For one thing it will require several people to closely monitor the animals in real time, looking for any signs that the animals are disturbed or acting unusually. But the watchers may have to wait days, weeks, months, or even years before they observe a reaction that might (or might not) be connected with a later earthquake. This seems like an enormous expenditure of resources, and the animals would need to be monitored 24 hours a day since an earthquake can strike at any time, not just during normal zoo hours.
If you're trying to determine whether ordinary animal behavior changes before an extraordinary event, a system of high-definition video cameras continuously monitoring the animals would seem to be a more practical and efficient approach than live observation. Instead of daily reports describing animals' ordinary behavior ("duck quacked and another quacked back"), video cameras would allow the researchers to record activity and review only the behavior following an earthquake.
Even if odd behavior is noted before an earthquake, that doesn't necessarily mean the animals sensed it. This is because of the difficulty of isolating variables; there are any number of things that might startle or frighten an animal into an unusual behavior, from illness to a change in environment or routine, to the real or perceived presence of a predator.
As scientists know, correlation does not imply causation, and just because some animals may act differently before an earthquake does not necessarily mean they sensed that earthquake.
There's also a good chance that even if the research confirms that animals are able to detect earthquakes-something few zoologists doubt is possible under certain conditions-they're no accurate than seismologists and therefore of limited value in predictions.