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Now he’s looking to goats to see if the ancients’ theory that animals “know” about imminent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions holds water. Sure, it’s still a controversial idea, but perhaps 24/7 data collection around big events could provide scientific credence one way or another.

Immediately after a powerful earthquake shook Norcia, Italy, in 2016, Wikelski outfitted farm animals near the epicenter with collars to see if they behaved differently in advance of aftershocks. Each collar housed both a GPS tracking device and an accelerometer. With this around-the-clock monitoring, he says, you can observe what “normal” behavior is and look for deviations from that.

In Italy, Wikelski and his team measured that the animals collectively increased their body accelerations over background levels hours before earthquakes struck. He observed “warning times” of between 2 and 18 hours, with longer times corresponding to more-distant epicenters. He is in the process of publishing more details on his findings.

Moving forward, he’s interested in better understanding the mechanism by which animals perceive these natural phenomena. If it’s simply that animals are very sensitive to the earth’s shaking, he says, seismologists would have already solved earthquake prediction. Instead, rocks under high stress before a quake force charged particles out of the minerals. “There’s a charge in the air,” he says, “and that’s possibly what the animals are sensing.”

Further, Wikelski wants to tap into a larger network of tagged animals around the Ring of Fire. He wants to understand behavior patterns of different animals in the wild and see which “sensors” are better at predicting natural disasters. He’s applied for a patent for a disaster-alert system based on animals’ collective aberrant behavior relative to a baseline.

As human activity impinges on animals around the world, Wikelski hopes that his emerging “Internet of animals” offers even more reason to care for them. The insights they can provide, he’s discovering, may prove more valuable than ever.

This article was originally published on Anthropocene Magazine by Lindsey Doermann. She is a science writer based in Seattle. 

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