Originally created 09/13/98

Animals' third sense a mystery of nature



In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 22, 1880, a Japanese farmer named Kurosami was awakened by a commotion in his barnyard.

Racing outside to investigate, he saw chickens and geese dashing wildly about, dogs barking frantically, cows butting their heads against trees and horses trying to break down their stalls.

"I knew in my heart it was the end of the world," the elderly farmer was later quoted as saying.

Nearby, fishermen watched in amazement while fish "jumped and twitched" curiously and sea birds showed signs of confusion and fright.

In Tokyo, citizens were startled by the bizarre antics of their pets: Cats hissed and ran around in circles; dogs pawed at the door; goldfish flopped about in their bowls; and pet snakes tried to swallow themselves.

A short time later, a huge earthquake rolled through the countryside, leveling parts of Tokyo and causing widespread devastation in the surrounding countryside.

Survivors later said they escaped harm because they had been forewarned of the quake by the animals.

For centuries, folk wisdom has held that certain animals appear to sense an impending earthquake, long before humans or their sophisticated scientific apparatus become aware of it. An 1888 report appearing in the British publication Nature said, "The records of most great earthquakes refer to the consternation of dogs, horses, cattle, and other domestic animals."

"There can be no doubt," the report concluded, "that animals know something unusual and terrifying is taking place. Just how or why that is, we don't know."

Geese, pigs and dogs appear more sensitive in this respect than other animals. Tradition teaches rural folk in various parts of the world to flee their homes at the first sign of strange activity among these animals.

In The Encyclopedia of the Strange, author Daniel Cohen writes: "At the time of the great Calabrian earthquake, little fishes like sand eels, which are usually buried in the sand, came to the top and were caught in multitudes. In South America certain quadrupeds, such as dogs, cats and jerboas, are believed by the people to give warning of coming danger by their restlessness; sometimes immense flocks of seabirds fly inland before an earthquake, as if alarmed by the commencement of some sub-oceanic disturbance."

In the 1930s scientists in earthquake-prone Japan conducted experiments linking bizarre fish behavior to earthquakes. The study confirmed what a lot of people already knew -- fish and many other animals seem to know when a big shock is coming.

A report issued by the Japanese scientists noted, "testing showed that in a period when 178 earthquakes of all degrees of severity had been recorded, the fish and other animals in the study had correctly predicted 80 percent of the shocks."

According to The Earthquake Information Bulletin, thousands of studies have been conducted since the early 1900s, most of them suggesting that animals do somehow seem to sense impending earthquake activity. Examples included multitudes of instances where "goats refused to go into pens, cats and dogs that picked up their offspring and carried them outdoors, pigs that squealed strangely, startled chickens that dashed out of the coops in the middle of the night, rats that left their nests and fish that dashed about aimlessly."

The subject is still a controversial one. Yet the theory that animals do sense subtle changes before an earthquake is by no means an entirely implausible one.

It is known, for example, that earthquakes are sometimes heralded by changes in the magnetic field or subaudible sounds. Many animals are more sensitive to magnetic fields and sounds than humans are and might be sensitive to other more subtle changes as well.

Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.