“If you can’t beat them, join them.”
That saying is an expression whose origin comes surprisingly (at least in this day and age) from the world of politics. In 1932, Atlantic Monthly magazine quoted then U.S. Senate majority leader James Eli Watson as saying, “If you can’t lick ’em, jine ’em” – a colloquial slang version of an anonymous proverb which was changed from “beat” to “lick” when that word took on a non-combative definition, and from “jine” to “join” when that old word fell out of usage.
This expression could be applied to science when scientists with competing methodologies realize teamwork might help reach a goal faster than uncoordinated competition. The expression is rarely used when discussing humans and animals (it’s never good to ‘beat’ an animal in the violent control sense) … until now. Seismologists attempting to predict earthquakes have given up and joined forces with animals, not only conceding that some animals are earthquake prescient but scientifically proving it as well.
“In an international cooperation project, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz/Radolfzell and the Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz, have investigated whether cows, sheep, and dogs can actually detect early signs of earthquakes. To do so, they attached sensors to the animals in an earthquake-prone area in Northern Italy and recorded their movements over several months.”
Scientists have always cooperated with other scientists at other schools and labs – even crossing international borders to do it. However, cooperating with animals is unusual, especially when it requires putting sensors on large farm creatures. According to the press release for their new study published in the journal Ethology, this team met at one Italian farm in an earthquake-prone area and attached accelerometers (an instrument that measures vibrations in a body or vehicle to detect acceleration or unusual movement) to six cows, five sheep, and two dogs that the farmer claimed were his reliable earthquake detectors. The devices were connected to their collars continuously for several months, during which time seismologists reported about 18,000 earthquakes in the area, including 12 earthquakes measuring 4 or higher on the Richter scale. And …?
“In this way, the researchers discovered unusual behavioural patterns up to 20 hours before an earthquake.”
After filtering out normal movements caused by things like dinner bells or other animals in heat, the researchers saw clearly defined agitation -- sometimes almost a day before a quake. Not surprisingly, the reaction was stronger the closer to the epicenter the animals were. Movements were recorded every three minutes and transmitted to a central computer. When 45 minutes of unusual movement was seen, the researchers identified this as an earthquake prediction. Even more interesting, the reactions were seen in all species in the group, not just one or two.
Did the seismologists on the team tender their resignations? Not yet. This was merely avoiding a small battle, not a crushing defeat. For that, the researchers have applied to use the global animal observation system Icarus on the International Space Station to monitor large groups of animals around the world for longer periods of time.
If this proves that animals are better than humans in earthquake predictions, will they let the humans join them?
The dogs say they’re prefer to be licked.