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Can ants, squirrels and other animals sense when an earthquake is coming?

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Before an earthquake rattles a region, some animals within the vicinity might be able to sense the event just seconds or minutes before it happens.

The earliest reference to unusual animal behavior in response to an impending earthquake dates back to 373 B.C. in Greece, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Several days before a destructive earthquake hit, creatures such as centipedes, snakes and rats reportedly left their homes to find safe locations, according to the USGS.

Similar accounts have surfaced in the centuries since, including reports of violently moving catfish, restless or barking dogs and panicked bees abandoning their hives, according to the National Geographic.

Ants - Pexels image

Scientists can easily explain the cause of unusual animal behavior seconds prior to humans feeling the jolt of an earthquake, the USGS reported.

“Many animals with senses [that are] more keen than humans are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives,” said USGS cartographer Diane Garcia.

The USGS defines a P wave, or compressional wave, as a seismic body wave that shakes the ground back and forth in the same direction and the opposite direction of the wave's movement.

An S wave, or shear wave, also shakes the ground back and forth, but does so perpendicular to the wave’s direction of movement.

Rodents and other urban animals are great at sensing subtle changes and reacting to earthquakes before humans do, according to Jordan Foster, a pest technician with Fantastic Pest Control.

“Seismic activity creates stress, which releases charged particles up to the Earth’s surface and into the air,” Foster said. “Those particles transform into ions, which increases the serotonin levels in animals.”

When this occurs, creatures such as rats, weasels, mice and squirrels might behave oddly, including standing frozen in place or acting uneasy.

“This can happen anywhere from a week to just seconds prior to the actual earthquake,” Foster said. Rodents are also able to detect the primary seismic waves far more in advance than people can, he added.

“The primary waves run in the same direction and do not create much of a disturbance, hence why we don’t sense them, but secondary waves run at a right angle to the primary waves, which is the actual earthquake and what humans experience,” Foster said.

Research has also shown that ants might be able to sense an earthquake coming. In advance of earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.0 or greater, ant colonies have been observed stopping their usual activities prior to, during and up to a day after an earthquake, Foster said.

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German researchers found that ahead of an earthquake, red wood ants, which prefer to live along Germany’s active faults, remained awake throughout the night outside their mound, exposed to predators. Such behavior is unusual for ants, as they’re not nocturnal creatures, Foster said.

“It’s unclear how exactly they sense the danger, but the two leading theories are that they can feel the changes of Earth’s magnetic field and sense fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels,” he said.

Most accounts of animals behaving strangely are anecdotal, and consistent, reliable behavior prior to an earthquake as well as a mechanism explaining how it might work still elude scientists, the USGS reported.

Although animals may be able to detect an earthquake seconds before the first tremor, sensing an earthquake days or weeks before it happens is a different story, according to Garcia.

“Much further research needs to be done regarding the possibility of genetic systems having evolved enough to have early warning behaviors for a seismic event,” she said.

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