Global Awareness — 13 January 2015

Jennifer Viegas writes in Discovery News on December 18, 2014.

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that certain animals can predict natural disasters, detect disease and more, and now science is proving many of these stories to be correct. Close observation of such animals could even help people to plan well in advance of coming problems, suggests a new paper in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

Warbler

Henry Streby of the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues discovered that golden-winged warblers take off from their expected locations more than 24 hours before storms hit. In this case, the storm in question produced tornadoes that killed at least 35 people.

“The most curious finding is that the birds left long before the storm arrived,” said Streby. “At the same time that meteorologists on The Weather Channel were telling us this storm was headed in our direction, the birds were apparently already packing their bags and evacuating the area.”

Dogs can sniff out prostate cancer with 98 percent accuracy, found a study earlier this year that was presented at the 109th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Urological Association.

Dog

Dogs have about 200 million olfactory cells in their noses, versus only 5 million in the human nose. Their keen sense of smell helps to explain the cancer-detecting feat.

Yet another study on dogs found that they can smell – through a person’s breath or sweat – whether or not a diabetic person has high or low blood sugar.

After the 2011 magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan, Hiroyuki Yamauchi of National Tsing Hua University and colleagues conducted a survey on how cats reacted ahead of the quake.

Cat

The survey found that six or more days before the devastating earthquake, some cats engaged in unusual behaviours and became more stressed out. Felines began “trembling, being restless and escaping.” Still other cats, immediately prior to the quake, became just as agitated.

The researchers believe that cats may sense quakes ahead of time because they have a wider range of hearing than humans. They also might be able to detect changes in atmospheric pressure, gravity and ground deformation.

Yamauchi and colleagues also found that cows behaved differently several days before the magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan. Specifically, cows “showed lowered milk production six days before the earthquake,” they reported. The decrease in milk yield continued for another four days.

Owners also reported that their dogs were agitated in the days before the quake. Dogs would howl and bark in ways not typical of their normal behaviour.

Have you ever noticed that bees are nowhere in sight before it rains? They sense moisture changes in the atmosphere, causing them to take shelter in their hives before downpours begin.

If you notice ladybugs bunching together, there’s a good chance that super hot weather is on the way. They gather to preserve their body moisture, safeguarding against drying out.

Ladybug

So far, the animals on this list have all displayed stress or a desire to run away ahead of natural disasters. Sharks are just the opposite. They seem to be the ultimate storm chasers.

Neil Hammerschlag of The R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami found this out after tagging sharks, such as tiger sharks. They and other shark species gravitate to rapid temperature changes, which is exactly where storms usually intensify. Monitoring shark movements can help to predict where storms will emerge and develop.

Like dogs, fruit flies can smell cancer even when it affects only a small number of cells. In fact, they can sniff out cancer cells from healthy ones using their sense of smell alone, according to a study conducted earlier this year by Alja Lüdke and colleagues at the University of Konstanz.

The study focused on different types of breast cancer, but it is likely that fruit flies can detect other types of cancer too.

“As not only cancer cells can be distinguished from healthy cells, but also subgroups were discernible within the cancer cells, it seems that even different types of breast cancer cells can be differentiated via the antenna of Drosophila (fruit flies),” Lüdke explained to ScienceDaily.

Clearly medical experts do not plan to have dogs or fruit flies sniffing around in examination rooms. Instead, scientists are hoping to create high tech pre-screening devices inspired by the detection methods of dogs and fruit flies.

Silvertip grizzly bears have an amazing sense of smell, such that they can sniff out a human that is 18 miles away. The same olfactory prowess, combined with other sensory abilities, likely allows them to detect incoming storms and possibly other natural disasters. They could probably smell cancer too, but running studies on these formidable carnivores would pose challenges.

Bear

Humans have super sensory detective powers too, such as bat-like echolocation that could be used to predict any number of natural disasters.

Usually such skills are more developed in people who meditate or who have disabilities, such as blindness, which causes the brain to tap into seemingly hidden abilities. A study on the phenomenon was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Mel Goodale, Canada Research Chair in Visual Neuroscience, and Director of the Center for Brain and Mind, said in a press release, “It is clear echolocation enables blind people to do things otherwise thought to be impossible without vision and can provide blind and visually-impaired people with a high degree of independence.”

It stands to reason that our senses might also pick up cues given off by earthquakes, storms and other natural disasters before they fully strike.

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