You’ve probably heard of the men who stared at goats in an attempt to get George Clooney or Ewan McGregor to play them in a movie – or was it to kill the goats by stopping their hearts? The movie was a bigger success than the experiment, but neither seem to be the inspiration for Martin Wikelski, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, who is staring at sheep and an occasional cow or chicken in an attempt to secure a patent on the practice as a means of predicting earthquakes.
According to The New York Times, Wikelski was actually inspired by last year’s devastating earthquakes in Italy and the popular folklore that animals can sense these disasters. He had conducted research in 2012-14 on animals grazing on the side of Sicily’s Mount Etna and saw the recent recurring activity as a great in-the-field laboratory for collecting data on animal behavior before, during and after quakes. In addition, it could help get approval for a patent on his “Disaster Alert Mediation Using Nature” which he applied for in 2013.
A sheep farm in Pieve Torina in central Italy that had been hit hard by the earthquakes became Wikelski’s test base. He attached solar-powered sensors to sheep, cows, turkeys, chickens, dogs and a rabbit that recorded every second and detail of the animals’ movements — magnetic direction, speed, altitude, acceleration and location – as well as temperature and humidity. As luck would have it – for Wikelski, not the animals – a 6.5 magnitude earthquake hit the farm a few days later.
In April, after months of recording the animals’ behavior during numerous seismic events, Wikelski collected the devices and fed the data into his computer.
Wow, it really looks as though something is there.
That’s the extent of the scientific analysis Wikelski was willing to share with the New York Times while he waits for his study to be published in a scientific journal. However, he describes how his “Disaster Alert Mediation Using Nature” would work. By attaching sensors to large numbers of animals over a wide area, they would form a “collective sensing system” and by linking this data with other “collective sensing systems” around the world, it would create an “internet of animals.”
An internet of animals? Wikelski agrees it sounds wild, but so does the way he describes himself and his fellow scientists on the project.
We are the crazy dudes. 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.
Will he get funding to continue his research? Will his patent get approved?
Who cares? What really matters is who will play Martin Wikelski in the movie about the men who stare at sheep. George Clooney? Jim Carrey? Steve Buscemi?