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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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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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