Can animals sense disaster?

Yes... and no.

As is common with large earthquakes, the 7.5 magnitude Kaikoura shake turned up reports of animals behaving in odd ways in the moments before the main shock just after midnight on Monday.

One caller to Newstalk ZB, who was camping about 500m away from Nin's Bin on the Kaikoura coast at the time of the quake, noticed how nearby seals "started making a bit of noise" around two to three minutes before the quake.


Such claims aren't new - and go right back to Greece in 373BC, when weasels, snakes, and centipedes reportedly left their homes and headed for safety several days before a destructive earthquake.

But the scientific evidence behind the theory, while lacking, fails to find any proof of animals getting advance notice days out from an event.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) noted a once popular theory that purported a
correlation between lost pet ads in the San Jose Mercury News and the dates of earthquakes in the San Francisco Bay area.

Yet a thorough statistical analysis of this theory, published in California Geology in 1988, concluded that there was no such correlation.

Another paper published in a scientific journal in the US in 2000 further failed to establish any evidence of a biological "early warning" system in animals as long as days out from a disaster.

Scientists can, however, easily explain the unusual animal behaviour seconds before humans feel an earthquake.

Very few of us notice the smaller P wave that travels the fastest from the earthquake source and arrives before the larger S wave.

"But many animals with more keen senses are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives," the USGS reported.

That seals might have sensed the Kaikoura quake moments before it hit didn't surprise Otago University zoologist Dr Liz Slooten.

"It's quite common with all sorts of natural disasters that animals notice early signs thereof before humans do."