Aside from ionosphere disturbances, nature has a number of ways that signify an earthquake's arrival far earlier than an iPhone can. Animals, for instance, are known to leave their homes and head to safety anywhere from a few seconds to weeks before humans can feel quakes. It was easy enough for researchers to determine the science behind the behavior seconds before ground tremors are felt, but the explanation behind instances of animal exodus days or weeks prior to any seismic activity has eluded them — until now, that is. Rachel Grant from the U.K. Open University and Friedemann Freund from NASA believe they may have figured it all out, thanks to a colony of toads.
Grant monitored a toad colony in L'Aquila, Italy for her PhD project, when she noticed the population number dropped from 96 to almost zero at least three days before an earthquake hit. After forming a team with Freund, they studied how and why that event happened. The results — which were recently published in a research paper — showed that stress in the surrounding rocks released charged particles that contaminated the groundwater. The toads, of course, sought refuge away from their environment which had suddenly become toxic.
According to the study, rocks under very high levels of stress due to tectonic forces emit particles that react with air to form positively charged ions. These particles are known to cause health problems in humans like headaches, nausea, and increased levels of the stress hormone serotonin. The positive ions then dissolve in the water, making it lethal not just to toads but other aquatic, semi-aquatic, and even burrowing animals.
The scientists admit their findings need to be tested and studied more. But even now they believe it can be used as one of the early indicators of an earthquake. "Once we understand how all of these signals are connected, if we see four of five signals all pointing in [the same] direction, we can say, 'ok, something is about to happen'," Freund says.
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