The Effort to Harness Animal 'Supersenses'--and Avert Disaster
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Animals are sometimes described as having "supersenses," and in many instances these relate to natural phenomena. On the morning of December 26, 2004, a huge rupture occurred at the fault along two continental plates between the Indonesian islands of Simeulue and Sumatra. The energy released was, by some estimates, over 20,000 times greater than that of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima, and it infamously generated a tsunami that caused destruction throughout the Indian Ocean. As it thundered through Aceh, the wave reached 30 meters in height, equivalent to a nine- or 10-story building. Across the entire region, coastal towns were destroyed by a relentless surge of water and debris that claimed the lives of almost a quarter of a million people.
In the weeks and months that followed the tragedy, one question kept recurring: Why had there been no warning? Though Aceh had virtually no time to evacuate, people in places further afield might have been saved had the alarm been raised. It was an hour and a half before the tsunami came ashore in Thailand, and two hours until it hit Sri Lanka. The element of surprise meant that fatalities were far greater than might have been the case. There were no warning systems in the Indian Ocean at the time and while new technology has now been deployed in the region, tsunamis remain notoriously difficult to detect at sea. In deep water, this most deadly tsunami in history was no more than a hump of water, less than a meter in height as it rolled toward unsuspecting populations in the region.
A UN report published in the aftermath of another devastating tsunami that hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2018 urged against an overreliance on technology. The authors' caution was based on the inaccuracy of systems that log the size of tsunamis out at sea, as well as the difficulties in relaying information across large stretches of at-risk territories. At our current state of knowledge, the many different variables that combine to determine the probability and extent of risk makes accurate predictions an enormous challenge. There is, however, a simpler solution that deserves consideration, at least as an adjunct to our current methods.
Long before a tsunami strikes, animals seem to be aware of the danger. Eyewitnesses of past disasters have described panicked cows and goats charging toward higher ground well in advance of a surge, and flocks of birds departing trees fringing the ocean. It has often seemed as if they are reacting to some stimulus that we're unaware of, one that precedes the arrival of the flood by at least several minutes. If they're sufficiently attuned to the behavior of animals, local people might take heed and follow them to safety.
As a case in point, the island of Simeulue was close to the epicenter of the 2004 earthquake, yet among a population of some 80,000 people, only seven died in the tsunami, an outcome that owes much to the attentiveness of the inhabitants to the behavior of the local fauna. The animals could feel the tremors of the earthquake and may also have been able to detect some other signal, perhaps the infrasound produced by the seismic disturbances that foreshadow earthquakes. Tsunamis also generate infrasound, alerting those creatures able to perceive these deep sound waves to the imminent danger of a deadly wave of water.
History is littered with accounts of animals acting strangely in advance of natural disasters. In the days leading up to an earthquake in the northern Chinese city of Haicheng in the winter of 1975, cats and livestock began to behave unusually. Most perplexing of all, snakes emerged from underground hibernation, only to freeze to death in their thousands. More recently, an entire population of toads who'd gathered at Lake San Ruffino in Italy to celebrate spring in the time-honored way by the enthusiastic begetting of tadpoles left the water en masse in the middle of breeding. Five days later, a huge earthquake tore through the area. Their sensitivity to seismic shudderings may have prewarned the toads, though other changes occur in advance of earthquakes, such as the release of gases and electrical energy that results from the grinding and splitting of rocks during tectonic activity. At other times and places, rats have emerged onto streets in daylight, birds have sung at the wrong time of day, horses have stampeded, and cats have moved litters of kittens. In some cultures, especially in areas that regularly suffer such events, these kinds of observations have been incorporated into folklore, enabling traditional knowledge to protect the local populace.
Can technology build on this, using the sensitivity of certain animals to the subtle signals of impending danger? Martin Wikelski, director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, believes it can. Over the course of his career, he has developed an extraordinarily sophisticated system that traces the movement of different species around the globe. Each individual animal carries a state-of-the-art tag that transmits detailed information, including speed, acceleration, activity and location. This information is collected by sophisticated aerials on the International Space Station and relayed back to Earth. One of the main goals of the project, known as Icarus, is to study long-distance migrations, and to examine how animals interact with the ecology of their environment and with each other, ultimately allowing targeted conservation efforts. The unprecedented richness and quality of the information, however, provides a means to harness animal behaviour as an early warning system for natural disasters, or, to give it the name that Martin coined, Disaster Alert Mediation using Nature (DAMN).
Some years ago, Martin and his colleagues travelled to Sicily to confront the island's perennially troublesome volcano, Mount Etna. On the flanks of the volcano, goats graze contentedly on the vegetation that flourishes in the rich, volcanic soil. To mine this caprine local knowledge, a handful of these animals were fitted with electronic tags, allowing the researchers to monitor their behavior from afar. Martin and his team didn't have to wait for long, as Etna erupted a few weeks later. Retracing the behavior of the goats in the run-up to the eruption, Martin identified a clear response around six hours earlier, when they became unusually active.
As a scientific measure, however, "unusually active" doesn't really cut the mustard. So the next step was to establish the exact behavioral parameters that would indicate that the goats had sensed that Mount Etna was about to erupt. If this were achieved, the goat-powered alarm system could then be automated, triggering an alert whenever specific aspects of the animals' behaviour surpassed a threshold value. Over the next two years, the doughty goats successfully detected almost 30 volcanic stirrings, seven of which posed a significant danger. That on its own is impressive, but more was to come. Etna is ringed with measuring stations that use mechanized sensors to predict volcanic activity, yet the goats outperformed these by sensing Etna's disquiet far earlier than the tech gizmos. What's more, they were able to identify the likely severity of the imminent eruption, something that has been notoriously difficult to achieve via scientific instruments. By melding cutting-edge technology with the evolved "supersenses" of animals, Martin has brought a rigorous 21st-century perspective to long-established cultural lore, one that promises to provide an inexpensive and effective solution to a global problem.
Excerpted from Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses, by Ashley Ward. Copyright (C) 2023. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.