Using Elephants as Earthquake Detectors?

Ever imagined having an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) as a rather sizable earthquake detector? Well, that might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.. or does it?

The article “Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?” published by the National Geographic News, highlighted that in the recent 2004 tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, an estimated 150,000 people were killed in a dozen countries. Miraculously, it was noted that in places like India’s Cuddalore coast, where thousands of people died – animals like buffaloes, goats and dogs were found unharmed! At the same time, three elephants were said to have run away from the Patanangala beach at the Yala National Park about an hour before the tsunami hit.

Did the animals – specifically the elephants – have a kind of “sixth sense” that forewarned them of a major disaster before it struck?

Unfortunately, this was found to be untrue. On the day of the tsunami, the movements of these elephants were being tracked using GPS satellite collars. The empirical data strongly indicate that “the movements of these free-ranging elephants are not consistent with flight behavior or other potentially aberrant behaviors attributable to extra-sensory perception or sixth sense, or even with an early response to seismic-borne detection of the earthquake and tsunami” (Wikramanayake, Fernando and Leimgruber, 2006). Another article also documented similiar results, further warning that “in the absence of any evidence of a response of the collared elephants, the anecdotal evidence must be treated with added caution” (Garstang, 2009).

As such, the idea of utilising the elephants, as well as other animals in general, to forewarn humans of imminent natural disasters remains mere wishful thinking – at least for now.

References:

i. “Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?” by Maryann Mott. National Geographic News, 4 January 2005. URL: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0104_050104_tsunami_animals.html (Accessed on 9 April 2010).

ii. Wikramanayake, E.;  Fernando, P. & Leimgruber, P., 2006. Behavioral Response of Satellite-collared Elephants to the Tsunami in Southern Sri Lanka. Biotropica,38(6):775-777.

iii. Garstang, M. 2009. Precursor Tsunami Signals Detected by Elephants. The Open Conservation Biology Journal, 3:1-3.

iv. “Photo by Elephant Country Web” by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. URL: bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2007/shah_rach/(Accessed on 9 April 2010).

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