It was once a “foolish” notion, largely written off as an old wives’ tale: that animals can sense impending natural disasters.
But today, given potent impetus from events preceding last winter’s catastrophic tsunami, it’s attracting serious scientific attention around the world as an idea that someday may help save human lives.
NATURE travels to four continents to examine this provocative and intriguing subject in “Can Animals Predict Disaster?,” airing Sunday, May 13, at 7 p.m., on KUED-Channel 7.
“It’s still a controversial idea, but one that’s now recognized as possibly having valid underpinnings in physics and biology,” says Fred Kaufman, executive producer of NATURE. “You don’t have to believe in paranormal perception to understand the arguments suggesting that some animals can pick up clues that humans can’t perceive. It has become a compelling and tantalizing issue.”
During the hours that separated last December’s cataclysmic earthquake off Sumatra, and the devastating tsunami that followed, reliable witnesses reported elephants in Thailand trumpeting and wailing wildly, then suddenly scrambling for higher ground; a huge herd of antelope in India stampeding away from the shoreline; hippos in a Malaysian zoo bolting for their shelters and refusing to emerge; and flamingoes interrupting their breeding rituals to flee the Indian coast.
Elephant trainer Aniwat Jongkit, speaking at his family’s elephant riding center for tourists near Phuket, Thailand, relates on camera how, on December 26, he awoke to the puzzling sound of two of the camp’s elephants wailing inexplicably. Later that day, he says, something far more telling was to occur:
“About five minutes before the tsunami, the elephants became very agitated … they pulled and broke their chains … and ran up the hill.” He and another trainer chased after them in vain. After awhile, they felt a strong wind and heard behind them “the sound of water and broken trees.”
Conservation biologist Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society and a member of a special government committee assessing ecological damage from the tsunami at Yala National Park, reports on the “surprisingly little evidence of fatalities among higher vertebrates.”
“Can Animals Predict Disaster?” examines a variety of possible science-based explanations for this and other animal behavior observed in advance of disasters. These include magnetic-field variations, shifts in electrical current intensities and the ability of some animals to sense seismic activity through ground contact or hear “infrasound,” carried on sound waves below the level of human detection.
Included in the program, in addition to Ravi Corea, are:
· Quantum geophysicist Dr. Motoji Ikeya, professor emeritus of Osaka University, author of Animals and Earthquakes and a leading authority on the subject of animal perception of natural phenomena;
· Dr. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of Stanford University, whose pioneering experiments in Africa have revealed how elephants may be communicating by means of seismic waves;
· Dr. William Barklow of Framingham (Massachusetts) College, a prominent researcher in Africa in the field of hippopotamus communication, including underwater vocalizations;
· Bio-acoustics expert Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, president of the Fauna Communication Research Institute and chair of the North Carolina chapter of the Acoustical Society of America.
NATURE’s “Can Animals Predict Disaster?” airs Sunday, May 13, at 7 p.m., on KUED-Channel 7.
Biologist Dr. Bill Barklow with hippos in Botswana
Survivors make their way through flooded Sri Lankan village following catastrophic tsunami
Please visit our website at www.kued.org/jobs for information about job opportunities at KUED.