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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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Potato-Based Pet Food Could Be Linked to Heart Disease in Dogs
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If you have a pup at home, you may want to check the ingredients listed on that bag of dog food in your cupboard. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has warned that potato-based pet foods might be linked to heart disease in dogs, Time reports.

Foods containing lentils, peas, and other legume seeds are also a potential risk, the agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine announced.

“We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients,” Martine Hartogensis of the veterinary center said in a statement. “These reports are highly unusual as they are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease.”

Recent cases of heart disease have been reported in various breeds—including golden and Labrador retrievers, miniature schnauzers, a whippet, a shih tzu, and a bulldog—and it was determined that all of the dogs had eaten food containing potatoes, peas, or lentils.

While heart disease is common in large dogs like Great Danes and Saint Bernards, it’s less common in small and medium-sized breeds (with the exception of cocker spaniels). If caught early enough, a dog’s heart function may improve with veterinary treatment and dietary changes, the FDA notes. While the department is still investigating the potential link, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid foods containing these ingredients until further notice.

As shown by the recent romaine lettuce scare linked to E. coli, the FDA is unable to request a food recall unless a specific manufacturer or supplier can be identified as the source of contamination. Instead, public notices are generally issued to warn consumers about a certain food while the agency continues its probe.

[h/t Time]

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10 Science-Backed Tips for Getting a Cat to Like You
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Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline, if you know what to do. Here are some tips on how to effectively buddy up with a kitty, drawn from scientific studies and my own experience as a researcher and cat behavioral consultant.

1. LET THE CAT CALL THE SHOTS.

When we see cats, we really want to pet them—but according to two Swiss studies, the best approach is to let kitty make the first move.

Research done in 51 Swiss homes with cats has shown that when humans sit back and wait—and focus on something else, like a good book—a cat is more likely to approach, and less likely to withdraw when people respond. (This preference explains why so many kitties are attracted to people with allergies—because allergic people are usually trying to not pet them.) Another study found that interactions last longer and are more positive when the kitty both initiates the activity and decides when it ends. Play a little hard to get, and you might find that they can’t get enough of you.

2. APPROACH A CAT THE WAY THEY GREET EACH OTHER (SORT OF).

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Felines who are friendly with each other greet each other nose to nose. You can mimic that behavior by offering a non-threatening finger tip at their nose level, a few inches away. Don’t hover, just bend down and gently extend your hand. Many cats will walk up and sniff your finger, and may even rub into it. Now that's a successful greeting.

3. PET CATS WHERE THEY LIKE IT MOST …

They're very sensitive to touch, and generally, they tend to like being petted in some places more than others. A small 2002 study demonstrated that cats showed more positive responses—like purring, blinking, and kneading their paws—to petting on the forehead area and the cheeks. They were more likely to react negatively—by hissing, swatting, or swishing their tails—when petted in the tail area. A more recent study validated these findings with a larger sample size—and many owners can testify to these preferences.

Of course, every animal is an individual, but these studies give us a good starting point, especially if you're meeting a cat for the first time.

4. … AND IF YOU GET NEGATIVE FEEDBACK, GIVE THE CAT SOME SPACE.

There are plenty of signs that a cat doesn't like your actions. These can range from the overt—such as hissing and biting—to the more subtle: flattening their ears, looking at your hand, or twitching their tails. When you get one of those signals, it’s time to back off.

Many of the owners I work with to correct behavioral issues don't retreat when they should, partially because they enjoy the experience of petting their cat so much that they fail to recognize that kitty isn’t enjoying it too. You can’t force a feline to like being handled (this is especially true of feral cats), but when they learn that you’ll respect their terms, the more likely they will be to trust you—and come back for more attention when they're ready.

5. DON’T OVERFEED YOUR CAT.

Many think that food equals love, and that withholding food might make your kitty hate you, but a recent study of obese felines from Cornell University showed the opposite is true—at least for a period of time. About a month after 58 overweight kitties were placed on a diet, three-quarters of their owners reported that their dieting felines were more affectionate, purred more often, and were more likely to sit in their owner's lap. This adorable behavior came with some not-so-cute side effects—the cats also begged and meowed more—but by week eight, both the good and bad behavior had abated for about half the animals.

Regardless of whether a diet makes your pet cuddlier, keeping your pet on the slender side is a great way to help them stay healthy and ward off problems like diabetes, joint pain, and uncleanliness. (Overweight animals have difficulty grooming themselves—and do you really want them sitting on your lap if they can’t keep their butt clean?)

6. PLAY WITH THEM—A LOT.

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Most of the behavior problems that I've witnessed stem from boredom and a lack of routine playtime. No one thinks twice about walking their dog every day, but many people fail to recognize that felines are stealth predators who need a regular outlet for that energy. A recent study suggested that cats prefer human interaction over food, but a closer look at the data demonstrated that what really attracted them to humans was the presence of an interactive toy. One of their top choices is a wand-style toy with feathers, strings, or other prey-like attachments that evoke predatory behavior. Daily interactive play is a great way to bond with them when they’re not in the mood to cuddle—and to keep them fit. Try the Go-Cat Da Bird or any of Neko Flies interchangeable cat toys.  

7. KEEP YOUR CAT INDOORS.

A study conducted in Italy showed that felines who stayed mostly indoors (they had one hour of supervised access to a small garden each day) were more “in sync” with their owners than felines who were allowed free access to the outdoors. The indoor kitties were more active during the day, when their owners were likely to be active, and less active at night, when humans like to sleep. (Many people believe cats are nocturnal, but they are naturally crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk.)

8. SOCIALIZE CATS WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG.

Multiple studies have shown that just a few minutes a day of positive handling by humans helps kittens grow up to be friendlier and more trusting of humans. The ideal age to socialize kittens is when they're between 2 and 9 weeks old. One 2008 study found that shelter kittens that had been given a lot of "enhanced socialization"—additional attention, affection, and play—were, a year later, more affectionate with their owners and less fearful than other kittens adopted from the same shelters.

You can help socialize kittens by volunteering as a foster caretaker. Fostering ensures they get plenty of interaction with people, which will help them will be comfortable around potential adopters. You'll also be doing your local shelter a huge favor by alleviating overcrowding.

9. TAKE THE CAT'S PERSONALITY—AND YOUR OWN—INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN ADOPTING.

If you want to adopt an older animal, take some time at the shelter to get to know them first, since adopters of adult cats report that personality played a big role in their decision to take an animal home permanently and had an impact on their satisfaction with their new companion. Better yet, foster one first. Shelters can be stressful, so you'll get a better sense of what an animal is really like when they're in your home. Not all cats are socialized well when they're young, so a cat may have their own unique rules about what kinds of interactions they're okay with.

It's also key to remember that a cat's appearance isn't indicative of their personality—and it's not just black cats who get a bad rap. In 2012, I published a study with 189 participants that showed that people were likely to assign personality traits to felines based solely on their fur color. Among other things, they tended to think orange cats would be the nicest and white cats the most aloof. (Needless to say, these are inaccurate assumptions.) And it's not just the kitty's personality that matters—yours is important too. Another study I conducted in 2014 of nearly 1100 pet owners suggested that self-identified “cat people” tend to be more introverted and anxious when compared to dog people. (We’re also more prone to being open-minded and creative, so it’s not all bad.) If you’re outgoing and active, a more playful feline could be for you. If you prefer nights spent snuggling on the couch, a mellow, shy-but-sweet lovebug could be your perfect pet.

10. BE A KEEN OBSERVER OF THEIR BEHAVIOR.

Overall, use your common sense. Be a diligent and objective observer of how they respond to your actions. Feline body language can be subtle—something as small as an eye-blink can indicate contentment, while ear twitches might signal irritation—but as you learn their cues, you'll find yourself much more in tune with how they're feeling. And if you adjust your behaviors accordingly, you'll find soon enough that you've earned a cat's trust.

Mikel Delgado received her Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley in psychology studying animal behavior and human-pet relationships. She's a researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the cat behavior consulting company Feline Minds.

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