SCIENCE: Can oarfish “predict” earthquakes?

Last Friday, on February 10, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck the southern part of the Philippines.  The Philippine Institute Volcanology and Seismology said the epicenter was located 14 kilometers north of Surigao City.

Two days earlier, a 10-foot-long dead oarfish was reported to have been caught by fishermen off the coast of Butuan City in Agusan del Norte, about 124 kilometers away from Surigao City.

According to some people, the appearance of the dead oarfish was already a sign of a forthcoming natural disaster that will strike anytime near the place where it was found.  But others dismiss the belief as tittle-tattle.

But the question is: how do those deep-sea creatures like oarfish end up in shallow waters?  Are they really good predictors of earthquakes?

“It’s theoretically possible because when an earthquake occurs there can be a build-up of pressure in the rocks which can lead to electrostatic charges that cause electrically charged ions to be released into the water,” Rachel Grant, a lecturer in animal biology, was quoted as saying in a report that was published on the Independent news website in October 2013.

It must be recalled that when earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku, Japan in 2011, about 20 oarfish stranded themselves on beaches in the area.  Japanese consider oarfish as ryugu no tsukai, which means “messenger from the sea god’s palace.”

Dozens of the deep-sea creatures were discovered by Japanese fishermen around the time a powerful 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile in March 2010 and the tremors in Haiti which left 200,000 people dead.

Japanese lore

In traditional Japanese lore, the fish rise to the surface and beach themselves to warn of an impending earthquake.  “In ancient times, Japanese people believe that fish warned of coming earthquakes, particularly catfish,” Hiroshi Tajihi, deputy director of the Kobe Earthquake Center, told The Daily Telegraph in an interview in 2010.

Now, going back to oarfish, which was first described in 1772 but has been rarely seen because it lives at considerable depths.

“Although oarfish were likely the source of many historic tales of sea serpents and sea monsters, they are hardly dangerous to people,” wrote National Geographic.  “Oarfish feed on tiny plankton and have a small opening to their digestive system.  They don’t even have real teeth, instead having flimsier structures called gill rakes to catch tiny organisms.”

Although they are occasionally seen at the water’s surface, scientists believe they are pushed from their habitat “by storms or strong currents, or they end up there when in distress or dying,” National Geographic claimed.  “A sputtering oarfish may look like a terrifying sea monsters, but it is not thought to pose a danger to people or boaters.”

According to traditional belief, if oarfish wash up, it may signal a coming earthquake.  “But these are just old superstitions and there is no scientific relationship between these sightings (or dead oarfish) and an earthquake,” he pointed out.  The author, Julian Ryall, added that “experts here are placing more faith in their constant high-tech monitoring of the tectonic plates beneath the surface.”

Scientific explanation

But there are some scientific explanations on it. “Deep-sea fish living near the sea bottom are more sensitive to the movements of active faults than those near the surface of the sea,” Kiyoshi Wadatsumi, a specialist in ecological seismology, told Japan Times.

Tectonic stresses in the Earth’s crust send “massive amounts of primarily positive air ions in the lower atmosphere.”  This was what Grant and her research team found, whose study was published in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health in 2011.

When these ions reach a body of water, they oxidize “water to (create) hydrogen peroxide.  Other reactions at the rock-water interface include the oxidation or partial oxidation of dissolved organic compounds,” the authors wrote.  The resulting compounds “may be irritants or toxins to certain species of animals,” possibly resulting in the death of deep-sea creatures.

An article published in the website of Live Science, assistant editor Marc Lallanilla reported that there was a group of physicists at the University of Virginia who studied reports of animal behavior before earthquakes.  They discovered that “rocks, when crushed under high pressure that mimicked the force of an earthquake, emitted high levels of ozone gas.”

“Even the smallest rock fracture produce ozone,” researcher Catherine Dukes was quoted but posted this question: “Can we detect it in the environment?”  Also, the author added: “Can animals detect a sudden rise in atmospheric ozone?”

Lallanilla wrote: “None of these hypotheses, however, is ready to be developed into an animal-based, early-warning system for earth tremors.”  Dukes agreed. “This is not a way to predict earthquakes,” she explained. “It’s just a way to warn that the Earth is moving and something – an earthquake, or a landslide or something else – might follow.”

Animals acting strangely

True but there’s a long history of anecdotal reports of animals acting very strangely in the days or minutes before a tremor is felt by humans.

The earliest reference to unusual animal behavior prior to a significant earthquake is from Greece in 373 BC. Rats, weasels, snakes, and centipedes reportedly left their homes and headed for safety several days before a destructive earthquake.

In February 1975, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck Haicheng, a city of one million people located in China’s Liaoning province.  One day earlier, city officials ordered an evacuation based in part on reports of strange animal behavior: Hibernating snakes in the area, for instance, abandoned their winter hideouts months before normal.  The early evacuation is credited with saving thousands of human lives.

A report said: “Scientists say that serpents can sense earthquakes from 120 kilometers away, up to five days before it happens. By observing erratic behavior in snakes, scientists are developing ways to predict earthquakes. They respond erratically, even smashing into walls to escape. Even in the cold of winter, they will move out of their nests before a natural disaster occurs.”

An article written by Theresa Crouse for Survivopedia compiled some strange behaviors of animals that something is not right will happen.  Forewarn is forearmed, so goes a saying.  Now, consider the following:

  • Bees stop flying around and go to hive.
  • Birds go to their trees and aren’t flying around. They may migrate completely away.
  • Fish bite hard one day then completely disappear the next day, or even a few hours later.
  • Cows and other animals head to high ground and safety.
  • Dogs and cats go missing. One guy checks lost animal posts in his local newspaper and actually uses that as one of his prediction tools for earthquakes.
  • Fish jumping an unusual amount, or fish that don’t typically jump, particularly catfish, are jumping. There is some speculation that they can sense changes in the electrical impulses in the air or water caused by impending disasters such as earthquakes.
  • If you live in an area that has a lot of frogs, they are prone to disappear prior to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
  • Chickens may become agitated and stop laying eggs a few days before a major storm.
  • Dogs become more agitated and may bark more or even become aggressive a few days before a major weather event. They may even refuse to go on a walk or walk to a certain area, such as by the water, during their walks.
  • Horses, dogs, monkeys, and other pets may refuse food or treats several hours prior to a natural disaster occurrence.
  • Bats may be awake and active in the middle of the day a few minutes or even hours prior to a natural disaster occurring.

“Anecdotal evidence abounds of animals, fish, birds, reptiles, and insects exhibiting strange behavior anywhere from weeks to seconds before an earthquake,” scientists from the United States Geological Survey pointed out.  “However, consistent and reliable behavior prior to seismic events, and a mechanism explaining how it could work, still eludes us.”