Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Detecting Natural Disasters

The linked article entitled Earthquake Predictors has some intriguing comments about natural disasters and the possibility that animals and insects are able to detect them. Earthquakes and tsunamis are mentioned and there are speculations about how animals have been able to avoid injury and death by anticipating them. Accounts include disasters of antiquity as well as modern day ones but the means by which animals would detect such natural disasters are not yet established.

Identifying how earthquakes and tsunamis are detected raises the issue of how such capabilities initially came about. What biochemicals are involved in the detection process and what are their coding genes? From the article (in blue):

So why do dogs become agitated when they hear rocks scraping underground? Do they understand its meaning? Do they know danger is imminent? Dr. Coren says no. It’s more likely that the sound to them is like nails on a chalkboard and they want to get away from it.

This could at least partially explain why animals survived the Tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Although it’s likely there was also other sensory input that caused the animal exodus, it’s possible that those able to pick up on the initial high-frequency sounds fled from the ocean, and those that couldn’t, took their cues from the ones fleeing.


A logical explanation is put forth indicating that detection sensations could agitate affected organisms and induce them to want to escape from the source. A secondary explanation theorizes that animals, unable to detect the oncoming disasters, would take their cues from animals that could. The real question though is whether such musings are accurate. In the case of earthquakes how could animals flee from the sensation itself. If the sensory stimulus is irritating then to where does an animal flee to escape it when the source comes from beneath the ground?

The escape route from a tsunami is clear but it is also more difficult to envision a sensation from it being an irritant. If it is not an irritant then why would an animal react to a tsunami sensation as a danger? What would trigger a danger response and how could it have evolved when the events themselves are rare and too brief in duration to allow for a selection effect. Wouldn't one have to assume that sensory capabilities evolved in response to a separate environmental stimulus and that the natural disaster response was a by-product of this?

It is too soon to evaluate data related to a natural history hypothesis when we are not yet in a position to identify genes essential to disaster responses. Nevertheless the uniqueness of the events correlated to animal behavoir makes it possible to conceive of evidentiary outcomes that could counter mainstream theories.

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