PIEVE TORINA, Italy — After a series of powerful earthquakes struck Italy last year, Martin Wikelski rushed here to test a hunch that has tantalized scientists and thinkers for millenniums: Can animals anticipate natural disasters?
A German scientist, Mr. Wikelski tagged several animals on a farm in Pieve Torina in the Marches region of central Italy in October to monitor their behavior, hoping that if it changed in some consistent way before an earthquake, it could be used as an early warning system and potentially save thousands of lives. One warm morning this spring, he came back for the findings.
“Wow, it really looks as though something is there,” he said excitedly, watching as his computer crunched the data on the hood of his car in a farmyard jumbled with machinery.
The series of earthquakes in Italy began in August, with other major temblors coming in October and January, accompanied by thousands of aftershocks. The calamity has cost 23 billion euros ($26 billion) in damage, rendered thousands homeless and caused more than 300 deaths. But the consistent shaking of a largely rural and agricultural area has also provided a rare chance to test the ancient theory.
Mr. Wikelski thinks he may be onto something, though he is cautious, and coy, about just how conclusive his data set might be. He is the first to acknowledge that some consider the idea that animals can predict disasters the stuff of old wives’ tales.
“We are the crazy dudes,” Mr. Wikelski said with a laugh, explaining that getting funding to pursue his project without having hard data to support it was difficult. “So we have to make absolutely sure that we don’t make any minor glitch in statistical analysis, because people will try to drill holes in the whole thing, and rightly so.”
Martin Wikelski, right, downloaded data from a chip that had been around the neck of a cow at the Angeli farm. Credit Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times While Mr. Wikelski could not reveal the details of his findings ahead of publication in a scientific journal, he hinted that the data showed animals moving in a consistent way in the hours before the quake.
Mr. Wikelski, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, said some previous research had augured well for the predictive abilities of animals. It included a study that he conducted from 2012 to 2014 by monitoring goats and sheep on the side of Mount Etna, in Sicily.
“The animals predicted the major volcanic eruptions during these two years between four to six hours before,” he said, adding that eight major eruptions occurred during his study. “At night, the animals woke up and nervously walked around, and in daytime, they moved to a safe area” where high vegetation suggested that it had been spared by previous lava flows.
On the basis of this research, he applied in 2013 for a patent: “Disaster Alert Mediation Using Nature.” The patent is pending.
The recurring earthquakes in Marches and other parts of central Italy presented the chance to record a wealth of data about animal responses to further test the theory.
“We are really excited because this is the first time we could tag animals before, during and after a major earthquake series,” Mr. Wikelski said.
After a devastating earthquake hit the region in October, Mr. Wikelski and his project manager, Uschi Müller hurried to Italy. They happened upon the Angeli farm, which sells cheese produced by the family’s sheep and cows and other local delicacies.
The researchers walked into what had been the farm’s shop. “Everything was broken,” Mr. Wikelski said.
“All the cheese shelves were on the ground. You could see their livelihood was gone,” he said, but the family was “still very nice.”
Mr. Wikelski tagged a number of animals on the farm — a rabbit, sheep, cows, turkeys, chickens and dogs — with small but sophisticated sensors.
The devices measured the animals’ every movement, down to the second: their magnetic direction, speed, altitude, temperature, humidity, acceleration and location. He described the tag, powered with a small solar panel, as a “black box full of information.”
A few days after the first animals were tagged, another major earthquake, measuring a magnitude of 6.5, hit the area, which provided data for a significant seismic event.
Mr. Wikelski and Ms. Müller retrieved the monitoring devices a few weeks later and then returned in January to tag several of the same animals again, including half a dozen cows, twice as many sheep and two dogs, Zeus and Aro.
“I think the turkeys were eaten,” Mr. Wikelski said.
In April, the researchers came again to remove the remaining tags and to study the acquired data.
Tagging different species might be essential, according to Mr. Wikelski, as each one senses the environment in a distinct way. And together, he said, they might “form a collective sensing system,” providing completely novel information.
On a global level, such a collective could be described as “the internet of animals,” he said.
“If it’s just one animal alone from one farm, we wouldn’t be able to see a signal, but if you take it all together, the synergies, the synthesis of these sensing systems, that’s really what seems to give the signal,” Mr. Wikelski said.
The hope is that once the animal data is compared with the earthquake data from the area — using earthquakes of a magnitude of 4 as a cutoff — it will show distinctive behavior before, during and after an earthquake. From late October to April, there were 11 days with earthquakes measuring more than magnitude 4.
In the best case, the animals’ behavior in the hours leading up to an earthquake might act as an early warning system so that people could evacuate.
The Angelis would welcome some positive developments arising from what they have endured. The large family spent the winter living in primitive campers and cramped containers with makeshift bathrooms and kitchenettes.
“We have animals. Where would we go?” asked Augusta Raboni, the matriarch of the family, explaining why they stayed put rather than move to hotels on the Adriatic coast where other homeless earthquake victims were housed over the winter.
In late May, the state finally delivered small prefabricated homes, which they were still mounting. It was about time, they said.
During a snowy, cold winter that killed many of their livestock, “we were abandoned by the government,” said her husband, Florindo Angeli.
But the data gathered from their farm and the animals that survived may prove critical and will be combined with other data being gathered by the ornithology institute, which tracks many hundreds of animals.
It is part of an international project under a German-Russian lead called Icarus, short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, a satellite-based monitoring system that will track dozens of species outfitted with solar-powered transmitters.
“We will be able to learn from animals from any place anywhere in the world as a collective, and this is such a simple and such a powerful idea,” Mr. Wikelski said.
The United States Geological Survey notes on its website that “anecdotal evidence abounds of animals, fish, birds, reptiles and insects exhibiting strange behavior anywhere from weeks to seconds before an earthquake.” But the federal agency, responsible for recording earthquake activity in the United States, goes on to say that “consistent and reliable behavior prior to seismic events, and a mechanism explaining how it could work, still eludes us.”
Recognizing that many scientists remain skeptical about his line of research, and that many variables remain, Mr. Wikelski said he was eager to carry out experiments on a broader scale.
“Even if we can show that this is something that is being sensed by these animals,” Mr. Wikelski said, he noted that it was only “on one farm in one area of the world, so it’s very limited in what we can say.”
“It’s a huge claim, so we’d better have good proof for it,” he said.
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