Unusual Animal Behavior Before Earthquakes:

A Review of Possible Sensory Mechanisms


University of Texas at Austin, Marine Science Institute, Galveston, Texas 77550

To determine whether reports of unusual animal behavior before earthquakes are plausible, we have compared these reports with recent laboratory studies of animal sensory thresholds. Our major conclusion is that some animals are much more capable than humans of perceiving certain kinds of geophysical stimuli which may precede earthquakes. These geophysical stimuli are seismic or acoustic waves at low frequency (below 50 Hz), electric field changes, and olfactory stimuli. For example, recent studies suggest that some birds and fish are more sensitive than humans to sounds with frequencies below 40 Hz, and many animals are exceptionally good at perceiving low-frequency vibrations through their skin. Certain fish are sensitive to electric field changes as small as 10-5 V/m, and some laboratory mammals also respond to significantly weaker fields than humans. For these electric and acoustic stimuli the reported levels of geophysical precursors are within the reported perceptible range of some animals which show unusual behavior prior to earthquakes. In addition, stimuli caused by the release of gases from small cracks may well be perceived by some animals before earthquakes. Recent research has confirmed the remarkable olfactory sensitivity of some animal species, but no quantitative comparisons with geochemical precursors can be made yet. We find no evidence that magnetic field precursors or precursory high frequency (above 10 kHz) sounds are the cause of unusual animal behavior before earthquakes. Although some animals are highly sensitive to these stimuli, observed magnetic precursors tend to be of low amplitude amid relatively high noise levels, and high-frequency sound is severely attenuated within a short distance from the earthquake hypocenter. Knowledge of animal sensory capabilities may suggest an instrumental strategy for detecting earthquake precursors. We recommend further geophysical research in seismic areas to measure (1) seismic waves in the frequency range 10-50 Hz, (2) earthquake-related electric field changes and air ionization, and (3) coseismic or preseismic release of trapped gases other than radon. Further biological research can refine our understanding of (1) responses to sounds and vibrations with frequencies below 50 Hz, (2) the effects of electrical and electrostatic changes on animal behavior, (3) behavioral responses to odors, and (4) sensory capabilities of common domestic animals like horses, dogs, and chickens, which are seldom studied but commonly mentioned in the preearthquake reports.




Patterns in the behavior phenomena

Animal sensitivities to geophysical stimuli

Sounds and vibrations (foreshocks)

Electromagnetic phenomena

Phenomena related to the opening or closing of small cracks

Precursory changes in groundwater level

Electrical resistivity

Other precursory phenomena


Precursory geophysical stimuli more likely to be sensed by animals than humans

Capabilities of particular groups of animals

Recommendations for further research

[1] Also at Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas, 77550.

Copyright © by the American Geophysical Union.