Last week, I wrote about the fast-approaching event in our family: taking our daughter to college for the first time. That happened on Monday and Tuesday, and it was even more seismic than I’d anticipated -- literally.
Arrival at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, went extremely well on all counts. Six of us- Sarah, her new roommate, and both sets of parents- broke the ice at a local frozen yogurt joint the night before move-in. The next morning, swarms of JMU students greeted our car and made off with Sarah’s packed belongings so that we were installed upstairs in the 4th-floor dorm room with minimal physical effort on our part. There, a steady stream of cordial, helpful young women came by to welcome the newest dweller of the Honors Dorm.
After room set-up, lunch, and honors orientation, the time came for our family goodbye: words, hugs, and yes as predicted, a brief, shared cry. We split off from Sarah at 1:45pm; 7 minutes later the earthquake hit (epicenter: Mineral, Virginia). Sirens blasted the campus air and at least one building, we later learned, was temporarily evacuated, but none of the three of us felt even a single earth tremor.
In Washington DC, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, matters were different. Numerous animals from snakes to orangutans responded with unusual behaviors during the quake, and quite a few apparently sensed its coming. Among the highlights of the zoo’s report:
*In the Great Ape House, “supermom” Mandara, a gorilla I’ve known for well over a decade, let out “a shriek” and collected her young daughter Kibibi about three seconds before the quake. The two apes—like a number of others in the building—positioned themselves atop a tree-like structure in their enclosure just prior to the quake’s onset.
*The ruffed lemurs vocalized an alarm call 15 minutes before the quake, and repeated it immediately after the quake started.
*Flamingoes in the zoo’s flock – 64 strong-- “rushed about” then grouped themselves into a huddle before the quake; they remained huddled during the quake.
How can these mammals and birds sense what Homo sapiens cannot? Yesterday, US Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough told the Washington Post that an earthquake first generates fast-moving P waves, and then a slower but more powerful S wave. It’s the S wave that causes the ground to rock. If, as Hough suspects, the P waves reached the zoo about 15 seconds before the S wave, the apes’ and flamingoes’ responses may be explained by their acute sensitivity to these weaker waves. (The ruffed lemurs’ alarm-calling remains either a mystery or, perhaps, a coincidence.)
Any human companion of a super-sniffer dog, or an ears-at-keen-attention-at-the-slightest-sound rabbit, can attest that nonhuman animals may show exquisite sensory sensitivities that we humans don’t. By very definition, each animal species is biologically unique, and divergent adaptations are honed over many millions of years of evolution according to the local environment’s pressures. But I confess to surprise at discovering that the great apes should be able to detect P waves more readily than their close evolutionary cousins – us! In my classes I always teach that the sensory capacities of great apes and humans are stunningly similar. Could it be that we humans so surround ourselves with artificial stimuli that we don’t still ourselves long enough to tune in to the P waves’ “natural channel”, so to speak? Or is there some fundamental difference across species in sensory capacity that we haven’t understood before?
The National Zoo’s earthquake report went viral this week, overtaking online websites, radio, TV, and of course my beloved twitter. This fact invites a second question: Why this keen interest in how other animals respond to earthquakes? I’d like to think it’s pegged to a visceral appreciation of our world’s living diversity. I take a distinct pleasure in knowing that we are surrounded by sentient creatures whose sensory take on the world differs from our own, and I suspect I am not alone.
To revel in differences across species needn’t go hand in hand with constructing some kind of superiority/inferiority hierarchy within the animal kingdom. Whatever their capacities and behaviors, nonhuman animals, in all their magnificent variety, have value in and of themselves, apart from our human lives, just for who they are and how they live.
And now, on to Hurricane Irene. This one, thanks to human technology, we see coming— here on the East Coast, pretty much right at us. There’s reason to worry for all animals, thinking back to the tragedies of Katrina. Best of luck to everyone in the storm’s path.