Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Animals and the Earthquake

August 26, 2011

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.


  1. August 26, 2011 9:54 AM EDT
    I became very interested in this topic after the Aug. 23 earthquake. That morning, before the quake, I walked into the kitchen to find an earthworm thrashing around in distress in the middle of the kitchen floor. It could only have come from a potted aloe plant nearby. I thought it was weird, but I picked it up, tossed it outside, mopped up the worm slime--and gave it no more thought until a couple hours after the quake.
    - Joseph McClain
  2. August 26, 2011 12:40 PM EDT
    just some scattered thoughts... I agree that the lemurs' calling is likely random; lemurs group-call a lot. And yes, surprise that the great apes appear to have a sensitivity to quakes before human perception kicks in. My guess would parallel yours, Barbara, that "civilized" humans have lost sensitivity and/or barricaded themselves with stimuli that blot out much of the sensitivity to the natural world that we may have had in other times. As I get older I seem to long to get some of that back. I revel in finding quiet times and just listening and watching outdoors without humans around.
    - Joanne Tanner
  3. August 26, 2011 12:57 PM EDT
    Joe, interesting observation- the NZP report did not include earthworms! During the quake the NZP snakes writhed unnaturally, but from all reports they didn't seem to pre-sense anything. Your earthworm was prescient! Joanne, one of the treasured memories I carry from Amboseli days was sitting on a hill, entirely alone in terms of my own species, miles and miles from the tourist areas, just the baboons and some giraffes and me... The silence was enveloping. I wonder if people who are more in tune with the natural world (because they CAN be, away from constant noise pollution etc) would detect, or have detected, P waves?
    - Barbara J. King
  4. September 11, 2011 7:41 AM EDT
    I've heard several anecdotes about the Sonso chimps' and earthquakes! You should chat with Cat Hobaiter about it.
    - BF

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.