A remarkable study confirmed that cows can sense an earthquake long before it hits the ground.
Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Behavioural Biology in Constance/Radolfzell and the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Constance have put farm animals to the test.
In a region of northern Italy – where earthquakes are common – six cows were equipped with small sensors. With the help of these sensors, the researchers were able to measure whether the cow could actually detect early signs of earthquakes. The cows were observed over several months, before and during a series of several earthquakes. The measurement data from the sensors provided information about the cows’ movements or body position.
The research results confirmed the long-standing assumption that cows can predict an earthquake. One theory is that cows can sense the earth’s vibrations. Another is that they can detect changes in the air or gases released by the earth. Whichever is true, a cow’s behavior can give us the cue to snap into action and a head start on fleeing to safety before the earth suddenly starts to shake.
“Cows become less active shortly before an earthquake, they virtually freeze,” explained Martin Wikelski, head of the research project at MPI. “It’s a bit like a stock market crash, and then it rises. With the acceleration patterns, we can then see from the animals’ energy consumption that they change their behavior before an earthquake.”
How cows sense coming earthquakes has not yet been conclusively researched. “It is quite likely, however, that the pressure of the plates that later slide apart during an earthquake is so great shortly before a major quake that rock minerals are released into the air,” says Wikelski.
“It is also conceivable that the animals could smell the gases released from quartz crystals before an earthquake. If the epicenter is directly below the animal pen, the advance warning time is around 15 hours. If the epicenter is about 15 kilometers away, it is about two hours. These periods correspond roughly to the speed at which the rock particles spread in the air.”
For the observation data to be used for earthquake predictions, the researchers plan to observe an even larger number of animals over longer periods and in different earthquake zones around the world. The global observation system on the International Space Station (ISS) – a modular space station in low Earth orbit – will be used for this purpose. This is scheduled to start its scientific operation in a few weeks. While monitoring how cows behave isn’t a game changer in terms of predicting earthquakes, it certainly creates the potential for future studies.