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Can elephants sense pending disasters?

by Susan Young

Can elephants sense pending disasters?Do elephants communicate by means of seismic waves?

That's the opinion of Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell of Stanford University, who has been working with elephants in Africa and right here at the Oakland Zoo. Her research, she says, proposes that it isn't just small animals like spiders, scorpions and kangaroo rats that have seismic sensitivity, but also one of the biggest land creatures.

Her work gained wide recognition in the wake of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami disaster following reports that trained elephants in Thailand fled to higher ground before the wave struck, saving their lives.

Because both earthquakes and tsunamis generate low-frequency waves, O'Connell-Rodwell and other elephant experts have begun exploring the notion that the gigantic beasts can actually sense earthquakes before they hit.

"Can Animals Predict Disaster?," explores scientific research on the old wives' tales that animals can sense impending natural disasters. O'Connell-Rodwell is just one of the experts on animal behavior featured in the fascinating program. She, along with filmmaker Jeff Swimmer, scientist Motoji Ikeya and conservationist Ravi Corea, talked to reporters last July about the documentary.

In the film, elephant trainer Aniwat Jongkit, whose family owns the elephant riding center for tourists near Phuket, Thailand, tells viewers that on Dec. 26, he woke to the sound of two of the camp's elephants wailing. Later that day, about five minutes before the tsunami crashed on shore, the elephants became very agitated, he says.

"They broke their chains and ran up the hill," he says in the film, adding that a few minutes later he and another trainer felt a strong wind and heard behind them "the sound of water and broken trees."

In addition, conservation biologist Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society who was part of a team assessing the ecological damage from the tsunami at Yala National Park, notes on camera that they saw "surprisingly little evidence of fatalities among higher vertebrates."

"We didn't see any animal casualties, especially the larger animals like elephants, deer, buffalo, leopard or stray animals," Corea said. "Any stray animal that was not contained, like in a cage or tied, apparently all escaped."

Corea chalks it up to animals being more aware of their environment than humans.

"Humans tend to forget our immediate environment," Corea said. "You've just got to observe someone working on a computer terminal and they're totally oblivious to what's going on around them. On top of that, we are highly curious whereas animals (exhibit) a flight response. They want to get away as fast as possible (from potentially dangerous situations)."

O'Connell-Rodwell's research began not as proof that animals can detect natural disasters, but simply that they can detect each other's vocalizations through the ground.

"So the tsunami came up as a kind of natural experiment with anecdotes showing that, hey, maybe they can detect seismic signals from longer distances away," O'Connell-Rodwell said. "I think that scientists do accept that seismic communication is very common in the insect world, but not so much in the large-mammal world."

The program is, of course, rather limited in the amount of footage that would show these animals reacting before earthquakes or tsunami hit.

"We really have almost none," says Swimmer. "We (don't have film showing) animals specifically fleeing. I'm assuming it's because people were more preoccupied at that moment with their own emergency situation."

Story continues at insidebayarea.com.

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