If frogs stop croaking, will the earth start shaking? New research could prove that the animal kingdom holds the key to saving millions of lives


Can animals help us predict earthquakes? A new study involving Hartpury lecturer, Dr Rachel Grant, will aim to unearth the link between animal behaviour and seismic activity.

Dr Rachel Grant, a Visiting Associate Principal Lecturer with Hartpury University Centre, has co-authored a number of studies exploring why animals change behaviour or disappear before earthquakes - the first after being in proximity to an earthquake in 2009 near the city of L’Aquila, Italy, and more recently documenting changes in animal activity before a large earthquake in Peru

As well as zoologist and ethologist, Dr Rachel Grant, the research team will be made up Professor Friedemann Freund - a solid state physicist with expertise in geophysical processes occuring before earthquakes - and Charles Lindsay, who has extensive knowledge of the field site in Costa Rica and particular expertise in recording animal sounds. Both Friedemann Freund and Charles Lindsay are affiliated with the NASA Ames Research Centre and the SETI Institute in California.

Friedemann and Rachel have been working together for many years and have jointly published several papers on the behaviour of animals prior to earthquakes.

Now Rachel and the team will use sound recorders in the OSA natural park, Costa Rica to record frog and bird calls as well as other forms of vocalisation of animals in relation to seismic activity. The team is predicting that as seismic activity approaches, animals will sense pre-earthquake physical and chemical changes, gases or charged particles and change their vocalisation.

“Earthquakes are devastating and unpredictable, causing large scale loss of life, injury, damage to buildings and hindering economic growth,” said Rachel.

“This project could help us to understand how animals are affected by processes occurring before large earthquakes. If we can understand these processes better, then we are one step nearer to being able to make forecasts of earthquake risk. Being able to forecast earthquake risk has the potential to save the lives of millions of people worldwide.

“Animals may hold the key to making large earthquakes more predictable. Some of our previous research has shown that frogs and birds are especially sensitive to pre-earthquake cues, such as changes in water chemistry, trace gases escaping from faults, air ionisation at the Earth’s surface and possibly electromagnetic emissions from deep within the Earth’s crust.

Friedemann said: “We plan to use state of the art acoustic monitoring equipment to record ‘soundscapes’ in Costa Rica, which is a seismically active region with a rich biodiversity. Seismic activity will also be recorded and the data will be fed into a statistical model which may help improve the forecasting of earthquake risk.”

“We are expecting that, as seismic activity approaches, there will be changes in vocalisations, as many, if not all animals, seem to be capable of sensing pre-earthquake chemical changes, gases or airborne ions.”

To help fund this groundbreaking research, which is due to run from 2017 until at least 2020 and is likely to be expanded to other sites, the team is launching a crowdfunding appeal.

This will enable the purchase of equipment and software they need for recording and analysing the animal calls and record how chemical and physical changes deep within the earth's crust may be linked to the differences in vocalisation patterns. You can find out more about the project and donate at https://experiment.com/projects/can-frog-and-bird-calls-warn-us-of-impending-earthquakes

Rachel said: "I was working in Italy studying breeding behaviour of common toads when one day I went to conduct my research as usual and, to my surprise, there were no toads at all. This continued for a few days and then five days after the disappearance of the toads, there was a magnitude 6.3 earthquake at L’Aquila, approximately 50 miles from the site of my research.”

After the earthquake, the toads returned to the area and Rachel decided to delve deeper into this phenonemon. She began to look for reasons for their disappearance as she suspected the toads may have sensed something connected with the impending earthquake which caused them to disappear.

She went on to publish her research findings from her time in Italy, which resulted in Professor Friedemann Freund contacting her about the research he had been conducting on changes in physical properties of rocks under stress.

Before an earthquake, stressed rocks release charged particles which become involved in chemical reactions at the groundwater inter-surface, leading to the formation of new compounds likely to irritate animals. He thought that such changes in the physical and chemical environment occurring before nearby earthquakes could potentially cause a measurable response in animal behaviours.

By using motion triggered wildlife cameras in a national park in Peru, Rachel and colleagues were able to demonstrate that the disappearance of toads prior to seismic activity was not an isolated incidence, as different land animals and birds in the national park also became scarce as a large earthquake approached. In both studies, Rachel has also worked with colleagues around the world who documented measurable disturbances in the propagation of radio waves passing above the epicentres, adding further weight to the hypothesis of stress-activated electric charges in the ground.

These findings have already seen Rachel appear on various TV and radio shows, including The Discovery Channel, BBC News and ‘Earthquake Snake’ on German TV.

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