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article imageItalian toads predict earthquake days in advance

By Ryan Mahon     Apr 3, 2010 in Environment
Xinhuanet and the CBC report that students at the Open University in the UK have documented that toads abandoned breeding sites over 70km (45 miles) away, and days in advance, of a 2009 quake in L'Aquila, Italy.
Xinhuanet and the CBC report that students at the Open University in the UK have documented that toads abandoned breeding sites over 70km (45 miles) away, and days in advance, of a 2009 quake in L'Aquila, Italy.
Looking to other organisms in the environment for cues of future events is nothing new. Leaves that up-end and show their silvery side indicate a coming storm. Migratory birds flying in a given direction indicate the change of seasons, or more immediately, the location of a predator.
Rather than changes in air pressure, or temperature, a study in the Journal of Zoology proposes that toads can detect gases that are released as the ground imperceptibly swells in advance of an earthquake. Then take to safer ground. Charged particles in the soil or the atmosphere may also trigger their evacuation. These events preceded the earthquake in Italy by nearly a week, and indicate that monitoring toad populations in earthquake prone areas may be an important tool in predicting the epicenter. The study also indicates that a more nuanced understanding of animal behavior could add to the precision of known methods of earthquake prediction, which presently are limited to mathematical models.
Dr. Grant, who led the study in Italy, claims that his data are the only known record of animal behavior before, during and after an earthquake. Notably, the frogs did not lay eggs until after the last significant aftershock. Perhaps most importantly, this is the only known or proposed method of earthquake prediction that relies on current physical evidence rather than mathematical predictions based on past seismic events.
Recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere have increased interest in the technologies available to minimize fatalities during earthquakes. In mega-cities where architecture cannot be built to withstand a quake, predicting a quake in advance, allowing people to evacuate vulnerable structures, may be key to averting catastrophic death tolls when a strong earthquake hits. According to Rachel Grant, the Canadian doctoral student who recorded some of the most important observations in Italy, the number of toads in the breeding site decreased dramatically leading up to the quake, and then dropped to zero.
Despite the initial hype surrounding Grant's study, it has been known for centuries that an wide range of animals change their behavior prior to earthquakes and other environmental events, including the 2005 tsunami. In 2003 National Geographic reported that as early as 373 BC humans have associated animal movement with earthquakes, but that no comprehensive system for evaluating and exploiting these environmental cues has been established in the intervening 2,400 years.
More about Earthquake, Toad, Prediction
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