By now, the stories of wild animals fleeing the deadly tsunami (search) before it struck Asia and Africa are near legendary.
There’s even been talk that the animals possess a “sixth sense” that may have saved them from the huge waves spawned by the massive 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra (search) two weeks ago.
Animal behavior experts and scientists say it’s probably overplaying it to suggest that creatures of the wild are psychic. But they do agree that animals can hear and feel things that humans can’t.
“I don’t think it’s a sixth sense — at least nothing we can measure at this point,” said Diana Reiss, Ph.D., director of marine mammal research at the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo (search) in New York City. “Animals have very refined senses. In many species, they have sensory abilities beyond ours.”
For years, scientists have been trying to determine whether those sensory abilities can someday be captured and used by humans — and their governments — for detecting natural disasters.
Researchers in China have been studying the issue as early as the 1950s and have found that some animals, like snakes, can detect earthquakes in advance. Snakes were seen slithering out of their dens in the middle of winter hibernation, and other animals also seemed to sense quakes before they hit.
And in Kenya, Africa, one of the longest-running projects studying elephants (including their keen senses), the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project (search), has been going for 25 years.
“I don’t know that it’s something that can be quantified and repeatedly observed,” said Ravi Corea, president and founder of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. Corea is in the badly hit island nation helping the government in the ecological relief effort.
“The study of animals has really only been going on in the last 50 years. A lot has been learned in a short time, but it will take a couple of centuries to come to a point where we’re truly understanding what they’re saying.”
There have been stories in Sri Lanka and Thailand of elephants running for the hills up to an hour before the tsunami bore down on the coastal lands, wiping out entire villages and killing up to 150,000 people.
In Sri Lanka’s second largest wildlife preserve, Yala National Park (search), people reportedly observed three elephants running away from the shore area to higher ground an hour before the tsunami hit, Corea said.
There were other reports that elephants in Thailand carried tourists on their backs to safety before the coastal areas were inundated.
Reiss and Corea said the explanation lies in the fact that the beasts have phenomenal hearing. They said elephants can both respond to and produce infrasound — sound at a lower frequency than human beings can hear. Other mammals with a similar capability include certain types of whales.
“It’s possible that geographic upheavals create low-frequency sounds that are not audible to us, but for an elephant … it absorbs the sound waves and can hear them,” said Corea.
Yala National Park, which had been home to at least 250 elephants, was particularly hard-hit by the tsunami. About 40 visitors were washed out to sea among the roughly 200 who died there, according to The Associated Press.
Two of the elephants in the park had tracking collars, though Corea declined to comment on what, if anything, researchers have discovered in the data analysis.
And elephants weren’t the only animals seen turning away from the shore before the tsunami hit. Birds, monkeys, dogs and other creatures were all reportedly acting differently on the morning of Dec. 26.
Corea, a Sri Lankan who immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago, said he has seen few animal carcasses in his surveys of the park, as well as in Colombo (search), Galle (search) and other places affected by the disaster. In Yala, there were only a couple of dead buffalo after the water receded.
“There have been no reports of elephant carcasses, deer, leopards, black bears, sloth bears,” Corea said. He drove through towns like Galle, which are full of stray animals, and “didn’t see any dead cows or goats. … My colleague saw only one dead cat.”
Animals might be highly sensitive to their environments, but they also look to other animals for cues that there's danger coming, according to Corea.
But some scientists have scoffed at the notion that animals have "super sense" and doubt they survived in the large numbers that others have suggested.
“It’s an urban legend,” said Brooks Hanson, deputy managing editor for physical sciences at the journal Science.
“Different people feel earthquakes differently, so maybe animals could, too. But a tsunami? No way. … I have heard rumors that none of the animals were killed, but how do they know that? Did they take a census?”
Reiss agreed that there could be other explanations for the vast absence of dead animals among the human casualties and ruin wrought by the tsunami.
“It’s conceivable that some of the animals were washed out to sea,” she said. “Lots of animals died in the tsunami … goats, dogs, cats, etc.”
Still, Corea has heard several accounts of strange animal behavior in the minutes before the tsunami hit the region.
He said a friend saw some bats — which are nocturnal and normally sleep upside-down during the day — very active about a half hour before the wave came. Another of Corea’s friends who lives in the hills told him his two Doberman Pinschers refused to go for their daily jog along the beach about 90 minutes before the tsunami.
“They wouldn’t respond to his enticements,” Corea said. “These are dogs that would normally be happy and bouncing and waiting for their run. That day they were totally disinterested.”
Corea also heard a story about visitors to the park who were trying to feed bananas to some monkeys when the tsunami came ashore — and the monkeys turned their noses up, literally.
“Bananas would be something normally that would make monkeys go bananas,” he said. “These monkeys were totally disinterested, staring up in a confused mode as if they were reacting to something.”
If nothing else, perhaps these stories teach people that they’re best off watching the wild for cues.
“It does show that there is some value in being more aware of what’s happening in nature,” said Tom Dillon, director of endangered species at the World Wildlife Fund.
Added Corea: "Wild animals survive by being always alert. That's what keeps them alive. Nature is very resilient. We shouldn't forget the fact that we are also part of nature."