Toads, fish, and chickens are playing lead roles in a Chinese research effort to predict earthquakes, Reuters reports. The Chinese government has asked farmers in eastern China to send twice-daily reports on any bizarre critter behavior in the hopes of narrowing down when seismic events will strike.
That animals can be seismological recruits is a hypothesis that’s existed long before seismology crystallized into science. From the perspective of many American researchers, it’s an idea more rooted in anecdotes and folklore than data, leading to some disagreements between these scientists and their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. The U.S. Geological Survey, the government organization tasked with earthquake prediction, offers a shruggie’s worth of description: “The earliest reference we have to unusual animal behavior prior to a significant earthquake is from Greece in 373 BC. Rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes[!?] reportedly left their homes and headed for safety several days before a destructive earthquake … However, consistent and reliable behavior prior to seismic events, and a mechanism explaining how it could work, still eludes us.”
But because you can’t keep a good centipede-as-predictive-model down, some animal behaviorists have proposed a few such mechanisms. Your scientific mileage may vary: Peruvian rats, according to British environmental biologist Rachel Grant, may be able to sense ionospheric charges and subsequently scurry out of harm’s way. In a 2011 Japanese survey, some 19 percent of 1,200 dog owners reported their pooches came down with the howling fantods prior to a quake, though 44 of these were just before it hit. And in 2013, the German Aerospace Agency declared they would be attaching tracking tags to more than 1,000 bats and birds, in the hopes of inferring information from avian flight paths — including, possibly, the anticipation of earthquakes.