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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
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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