Today, groundhogs tell us if there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Soon, puppies will be unleashed to help predict the Super Bowl winner. But have you ever considered looking to toads in order to forecast earthquakes?

Animals and Earthquakes

For centuries, there have been reports of animals acting strangely before an earthquake. From ancient Greece to the modern day Bay Area, people have observed rats, snakes, and dogs leaving their normal habitats for safe shelter in the days leading up to an earthquake. Currently, seismologists do not have a way to accurately predict earthquakes, so these animals may provide some clues. One Japanese doctor claimed that earthquakes could be predicted by unusual dog behavior, like an increase in barking or biting. Despite continued research efforts in Japan and China, countries often hit by devastating earthquakes, no consistent relationship between animal behavior and earthquakes has been seen.

Toad-ally New Connection

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The humble toad, Bufo bufo, holds some promise for detecting pre-seismic changes and alerting us of imminent earthquakes.

The observation of odd toad behavior before an earthquake was published in the Journal of Zoology in 2010. Rachel Grant of Open University was studying the how the lunar cycle impacted toad behavior and reproduction in L’Aquilla, Italy when one day, she noticed there were suddenly no toads at the breeding site. Such behavior was extremely odd in the middle of mating season since toads do not leave until breeding is completed. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred in the area days later and the toads started returning the day after the earthquake.

Grant was curious about what cues the toads were responding to when they departed the breeding site. She found reports that there had been changes in the ionosphere, which is the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere, leading up to the earthquake. These changes are common before earthquakes and lead to a lot of gases being released into the atmosphere, which could change the water chemistry of the toad habitat. Toads and other amphibians are very sensitive to such changes, so this disruption may explain their sudden departure.

While intriguing, more work will need to be done to take this study from a well-documented anecdote to a reliable method for predicting earthquakes. A similar mass migration of toads was seen in 2008 before a large earthquake in China, but all of these results will have to be replicated at these site and others, which will be difficult due to how rare and unpredictable earthquakes are. But in the meantime, if you see a mass exodus of toads, it might not be a bad idea to follow them.

Peer edited by Madelyn Huang.

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