The Loh Down On Science

Can animals really predict earthquakes?

Berberich et al., Animals, 2013.

Brown triangles are red wood ant mounds; blue lines are earthquake faults.

Can the next earthquake predictions come from . . . ants?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet the European red wood ant.  It lives on the edge—literally.  Colonies construct large mounds atop active faults.  Dozens of mounds may line a single fracture.  Lucky for us?  Maybe!

Meet Gabriele Berberich the University of Duisburg-Essen.  Using special AntCams, she spied on two colonies in western Germany.  Software recorded their activity day and night for three years.

Turned out, the critters were a lot like us.  They worked all day and slept all night.  But then they’d suddenly act crazy!  Unusually antsy.  Even pulling all-nighters aboveground.  Every time they did this?  An earthquake hit within twenty-four hours.  The next day they’d be normal again.  They seemed to sense quakes!

The why and how?   Unknown.  Maybe they detect changes in gases escaping from faults.  Or maybe they feel shifts in Earth’s magnetic field. 

Whatever the reason, they could make a useful early-warning system.  Today’s best methods reliably predict with only minutes' advance.  These guys’ full-day notice?  That gives more time for proper—wait for it—ANT-ticipation.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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