Could animals have warned us of the 2004 tsunami before it occurred? That was the question many reporters asked Rom in the weeks following the disaster.

On that fateful morning, when giant waves hit the east coast, about 20 km away, our dogs lay asleep under the dining table, while Rom and I bustled about the kitchen.

Rom replied he had seen no evidence of animals’ ability to foretell natural disasters. But the reporters quoted eyewitness reports of deer, elephants, buffaloes, and monkeys running to higher ground, bats and flamingos flying away, and zoo animals refusing to leave their shelters. When Rom wasn’t impressed, they demanded, “Why were there no animal casualties?” One reporter even insisted ants crawled upwards. Rom replied mockingly, “Really? I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

Animals certainly have keener senses than we do. Elephants, for instance, are known to sense very low frequency sounds with their feet. But can they feel the ground tremors of earthquakes and tsunamis before they hit? Crucially, do they know what evasive action to take?

How close must animals be to the epicentre of the earthquake in order to detect them? Do all animals in that radius detect these vibrations? Or are some animals more gifted than others in predicting imminent catastrophes? Hundreds of dogs that washed up dead on the beaches of Phuket, just 450 km from the epicentre, apparently had no premonition at all, while two dogs in Galle, Sri Lanka, more than 1,500 km away, seemingly knew what was coming and refused to go for a walk on the beach.

Even if we know which animals to observe, how do we interpret a specific animal behaviour to mean — Earthquake imminent — and not — My stomach’s cramping. I don’t want to go for a walk? Did an earthquake ensue every time the dogs refused to go for a walk?

It’s even more difficult to gauge wild animal behaviour. We need to know what they were doing before the event if we are to decipher the significance of their post-event actions. Such opportunities are extremely rare.

In Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, scientists Eric Wickramanayake, Peter Leimgruber, and Prithviraj Fernando had radio-collared an adult cow elephant from a herd of about 30. The transmitter sent the elephant’s location coordinates via satellite every four hours. At 2 a.m. on December 26, 2004, the cow elephant and her herd were close to the coast, just 280 metres from the water’s edge. At 10 a.m., an hour after the first wave of tsunami struck, the animals were by the beach. They then ambled inland but returned to the coast the next morning.

Later, when the biologists visited the site, they realised the elephant herd had been on the leeside of a sand dune and was therefore unaffected by the sea’s unusual intrusion into land.

Looking at the herd’s movements over the preceding days, the biologists concluded it didn’t panic and take flight either before, during, or after the tsunami. Did the animals not feel the vibrations of the earthquake and the tsunami? Didn’t they think the tidal waves were dangerous?

Many months earlier, the cow elephant was captured, collared, and released. She and her herd were so spooked by the experience, they walked 10 km that night.

Clearly, in the animals’ estimation, the tsunami was nothing to get worked up about compared to the stress of being captured.

The GPS locations of the elephant’s movements are logged for anyone to see. Of the eyewitness and hearsay accounts of animals reacting with insight to the disaster even before it occurred, there is no way of confirming them independently.

In the days following the tsunami, no one took time off to assess the loss of non-human life. While doing humanitarian work, Manori Gunawardena, an elephant biologist, recalls seeing numerous animal carcasses along the Yala coast. Perhaps, reporters hadn’t looked hard enough.

Despite their inability to warn us of the tsunami, my dogs predict people will continue to believe any story of animals’ extraordinary powers of premonition.


Cat baitJanuary 10, 2014

An appeal to NatureJanuary 17, 2014