Government researchers in China have asked a select group of farmers to monitor abnormal behavior among their livestock — behaviors that could be indicative of imminent earthquakes.

As the China Daily newspaper reported last week, the seismological bureau in Nanjing has converted seven animal farms into “seismic stations” with plans to develop several more.

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Animals under observation include chickens, fish, boars, and toads. The farmers will be on the lookout for such behaviors as chickens flying on top of tree branches, fish leaping out of the water, and toads moving as a group. The bureau wants the farmers to report animal behavior twice a day using QQ, an instant messaging program popular in China. And to assist them in their task, cameras have been set up for constant monitoring.

“Seismological experts will analyze reported abnormalities to decide whether or not a possible earthquake is imminent,” noted Zhou Hongbing, a breeder turned earthquake observer at Banqiao Ecological Park.

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Over the coming months, Nanjing wants to add another seven farms to the project. To qualify, candidate farms need to have enough space and sample animals to perform the required cross checks. Preferred farms also need to be located in quiet neighborhoods away from factories or mines. As pointed out by Shen Zhijun, a keeper at Hongshan Forest Zoo in Nanjing, animals used to forecast earthquakes need to be sensitive to infrasound, but not other changes in environment or weather.

But is there any truth to the assertion that animals can predict earthquakes? There certainly seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence. As China Daily reports:

As early as the 1970s, 58 kinds of animals are were found to display abnormal behavior before earthquakes. They included wild and domesticated animals such as cats, dogs, pandas, fish, snakes, rats, ants and bees, according to a survey by the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Cave animals, such as rats and snakes, are found to be more sensitive than those living above the ground, and smaller ones more sensitive than bigger ones.

Records of quakes show that animals displayed abnormal behavior before they occured. For example, six weeks before the devastating earthquake in Yingkou, Northeast China’s Liaoning province, in 1975, snakes in hibernation left their caves and geese kept honking and refusing to enter their nests. Also before the deadly earthquake striking Tangshan, North China’s Hebei province, hordes of rats were seen fleeing nests and more than 100 skunks migrating.

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Still, scientists aren’t entirely sure if a connection truly exists; much more empirical evidence is required. Hopefully this project in China will provide some much needed data. It’s worth pointing out, however, that a recent study showed measurable changes in animal activity prior to a magnitude 7 earthquake in the Peruvian Andes. Rats in particular seem attuned to seismic disturbances. The scientists theorize that ionospheric perturbations may be sensed by animals, who react by fleeing their immediate area.

All this said, the Chinese scientists have their work cut out for them. It’ll be extraordinarily difficult to correlate “abnormal” animal behavior in relation to an ensuing earthquake. The researchers will run the risk of reading too much into certain behaviors. But if links can be established, this could prove to be a tremendously beneficial project.

[China Daily]

Images: dfic.cn

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