“It can't be a coincidence!” thought Ulrich Schreiber, a geologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, when he was bitten by an ant for the umpteenth time.

Why did ants build their nests at the very spot of countryside where he did research on tectonics? Thus was born Schreiber's unusual and controversial hypothesis, namely that ants can forecast earthquakes.

Not all ants, mind you, but hill-building red wood ants. Schreiber surmised that the ants liked to settle on fault systems, which is what geologists call the earthquake-prone areas of friction between tectonic plates. According to Schreiber, gases rising from the deep crust warm the ants' home. In addition, cavities within the faults may provide humidity near the surface that the ants can use.

For two years Schreiber and his university colleagues have been monitoring two anthills in the upland Eifel region of western Germany with “ant cams” around the clock.

Peculiar behaviour

They found that the ants behaved in a peculiar way when minor subterranean earthquakes occurred nearby.

The ants then displayed unusual nocturnal activity and appeared more frequently than normal on the surface, noted Schreiber, who said he suspected they were reacting to an increase in ascending gases. Quake-related electromagnetic signals may also play a role, he said.

Schreiber travelled to the Abruzzo region of central Italy after the devastating earthquake in L'Aquila two years ago and said he had found ant nests on geological fault lines there, too.

He also wants to do research in Istanbul, where scientists expect a powerful earthquake in the near future.

Although he concedes his research is still preliminary, Schreiber said he firmly believes that someday ants would save human lives by serving as an early warning system for earthquakes.

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