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Can Animals Really Anticipate Natural Disasters?

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In 2004, when an 810-mile swath of the Sunda megathrust fault ruptured beneath the Indian Ocean, it triggered a 9.1 magnitude undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, the third largest tremor ever recorded. The abrupt rise of the seabed displaced a staggering volume of water, generating a wave of tsunamis from the quake’s epicenter in every direction.

Some 230,000 people across fourteen coastal countries died, but, in the aftermath, locals and rescuers in certain areas noted a conspicuous absence of animal casualties. In the following weeks and months, stories emerged of some animals acting oddly just before the tsunami hit: Eyewitnesses in Sri Lanka and Thailand told of elephants that trumpeted before seeking higher ground, dogs that refused to go outside, and flamingos that suddenly abandoned low-lying nesting areas. For centuries, anecdotal stories have circulated about animals possessing some primal sixth sense that alerts them to an imminent natural disaster, but does science back it up?

BAD VIBRATIONS

While it’s clear that animals have different or heightened sensory capabilities compared to humans, very few scientists will go on record to support the idea that animals and insects possess a biologically determined sixth sense that allows them to portend coming trouble. In the case of the elephants that reportedly made for higher ground before the tsunami hit, one theory is that they picked up on infrasound waves generated by the tremor. These waves have a fundamental frequency of 20 Hz or lower, and fall outside the limits of normal human hearing (the bottom note on a piano, A0, has a frequency of about 27.5 Hz, and is generally the lowest tone humans can differentiate).

Infrasonic sound waves can be spawned by intensely energetic occurrences like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, lightning, meteors, and iceberg calving. Elephants, rhinos, hippos, whales, felines, dogs, and many birds rely on infrasonic sounds for both communication and navigation. When the Sri Lankan elephants detected the initial low frequency rumblings coming from the Indian Ocean, it wasn’t as if they sensed the coming tsunami, they just instinctively moved away from the source of the sound, which, in this case, happened to be the right decision.

Many animals, insects, and birds are also particularly sensitive to Rayleigh waves, a type of surface wave that travels along solid ground. After the initial rupture, the waves would have traveled through the earth’s crust from the epicenter, causing minute vibrations. The waves are inaudible and travel at ten times the speed of sound, and could therefore have been noticed by those animals sensitive to them well before the slow-moving tsunami crashed ashore. Humans actually have mechanoreceptors in our skin called Pacinian corpuscles which act to detect changes in vibration and pressure, but, as their optimal sensitivity is 250 Hz, and Rayleigh waves generated by earthquakes are typically below 20 Hz, they do little for us in these situations. 

NATURE’S FORECASTER

Ants have a fascinating ability to seemingly anticipate both earthquakes and coming rainstorms. A recent study in Germany documented red wood ants and their propensity to build nests along active fault lines. The three year study showed that the ants, in the hours leading up to a quake, would go about their daily routine, but would stay awake and outside their mounds at night, even though this made them vulnerable to predators. The day after the quake hit, the ants would revert to their normal behavior.

Though researchers are still trying to figure out the mechanism that causes the change in behavior, it’s proposed that ants have receptors that can pick up on barely detectable changes in atmospheric gases and electromagnetic fields that are the byproduct of tremors and storms. Ants will often build up mounds around their ground holes for extra protection before heavy rains. They’ll also seek out higher nesting spots, such as the tops of tree stumps and potted plants, in an effort to avoid being washed away. For years, farmers have been tipped off to coming rain by noticing a dramatic uptick in ant activity before a downpour. 

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Animals
14 Fascinating Facts About Foxes
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Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in cities, towns, and rural settings. But despite being all around us, they’re a bit of a mystery. Here’s more about this elusive animal.

1. Foxes Are Solitary.

Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which means they’re related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They’re medium-sized, between 7 and 15 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails. But unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families—called a “leash of foxes” or a “skulk of foxes”—in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone.

2. Foxes Have A Lot In Common With Cats.

Like the cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. In fact, it has vertically oriented pupils that allow it to see in dim light. It even hunts in a similar manner to a cat, by stalking and pouncing on its prey.

And that’s just the beginning of the similarities. Like the cat, the fox has sensitive whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, cat-like tread. And—get this—many foxes have retractable claws that allow them to climb rooftops or trees. Some foxes even sleep in trees—just like cats.

3. The Red Fox Is The Most Common Fox.

The red fox has the widest geographical range of any animal in the order Carnivora. While its natural habitat is a mixed landscape of scrub and woodland, its flexible diet allows it to adapt to many environments. As a result, its range is the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa to Central America to the Asiatic steppes. It’s also in Australia, where it’s considered an invasive species.

4. Foxes Use The Earth’s Magnetic Field.

Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses the earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this “magnetic sense,” but the fox is the first one we’ve discovered that uses it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” on its eyes that darkens as it heads towards magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound the prey is making line up, it’s time to pounce. Here’s the fox in action:

5. Foxes Are Good Parents.

Foxes reproduce once a year. Litters range from one to 11 pups (the average is six), which are born blind and don’t open their eyes until nine days after birth. During that time, they stay with the vixen (female) in the den while the dog (male) brings them food. They live with their parents until they're seven months old. The vixen protects her pups with surprising loyalty. Recently, a fox pup was caught in a trap in England for two weeks, but survived because its mother brought it food every day.

6. The Smallest Fox Weighs Under 3 Pounds.

Roughly the size of a kitten, the fennec fox has elongated ears and a creamy coat. It lives in the Sahara Desert, where it sleeps during the day to protect it from the searing heat. Its ears not only allow it to hear prey, they also radiate body heat, which keeps the fox cool. Its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it’s wearing snowshoes.

7. Foxes Are Playful.

Foxes are known to be friendly and curious. They play among themselves as well as with other animals like cats and dogs. They love balls, which they frequently steal from golf courses.

Although foxes are wild animals, their relationship with humans goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old cemetery in Jordan to find the remains of a man and his pet fox. This was 4000 years before the first-known human and dog were buried together.

8. You Can Buy A Pet Fox.

In the 1960s, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev bred thousands of foxes before achieving a domesticated fox. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is docile toward people from birth. Today, you can buy a pet fox for $9000, according to Fast Company. They’re reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, although inclined to dig in your furniture.

9. Arctic Foxes Don’t Shiver Until –70 degrees Celsius.

The arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost areas of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on earth. It doesn’t even get cold until –70 degrees Celsius. Its white coat also camouflages it against predators. As the seasons change, the coat changes too, turning brown or gray so the fox can blend in with the rocks and dirt of the tundra.

10. Fox Hunting Continues To Be Controversial.

Perhaps because of the fox’s ability to decimate a chicken coop, in the 16th century, fox hunting became a popular activity in Britain. In the 19th century, the upper classes turned fox hunting into a formalized sport where a pack of hounds and men on horseback chase a fox until it is killed. Today, whether to ban fox hunting continues to be a controversial subject in the UK. Currently, fox hunting with dogs is not allowed.

11. The Fox Appears Throughout Folklore.

Examples include: the nine-tail fox from various Asian cultures; the Reynard tales from medieval Europe; the sly trickster fox from Native American lore; and Aesop’s “The Fox and the Crow.” The Finnish believed a fox made the Northern Lights by running in the snow so that its tail swept sparks into the sky. From this, we get the phrase “fox fires.”

12. Bat-eared Foxes Listen For Insects.

The bat-eared fox is aptly named, not just because of its 5-inch ears, but because of what it uses those ears for—like the bat, it listens for insects. On a typical night, the fox walks along the African Savannah, listening, until it hears the scuttle of prey. Although the fox eats a variety of insects and lizards, most of its diet is made up of termites. In fact, the bat-eared fox often makes its home in termite mounds, which it usually cleans out of inhabitants before moving in.

13. Darwin Discovered A Fox Species.

During his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a fox that today is unimaginatively called Darwin’s Fox. This small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in just two spots in the world: One population is on Island of Chiloé in Chile, and the second is in a Chilean national park. The fox’s greatest threats are unleashed domestic dogs that carry diseases like rabies.

14. Foxes Sound Like This.

Foxes make 40 different sounds, some of which you can listen to here. The most startling is the scream:

Pleasant dreams!

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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