Snakes Have The Ability To Predict Earthquakes

Earthquakes are among the deadliest natural disasters that humanity has to contend with. Between 1998 and 2017, nearly 750,000 people worldwide died as a result of earthquakes, according to the World Health Organization. And they can happen anywhere, not just along major fault lines (via National Geographic).

Even though the Earth experiences dozens of earthquakes every day, most of them are too small to be felt; but once a month or so, there's a major earthquake strong enough to knock over your chimney and toss your furniture around like a pair of dice (via U.S. Geological Survey). About once a year, there's an earthquake strong enough to topple statues and collapse buildings.

But what makes earthquakes particularly terrifying is their unpredictability. Hurricanes you can see coming. A tornado needs at least a thunderstorm to form. Floods need rain. Earthquakes, on the other hand, can occur anywhere, anytime, and without any warning. Unless, of course, you've been listening to the snakes.

Animal oracles

The idea that animals can be harbingers of earthquakes has been around for thousands of years. The Roman writer Aelian wrote that in the days before an earthquake and tsunami in the lost city of Helike, snakes, rats, and other animals fled the city. In his study of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Immanuel Kant wrote that in the days before the event, worms were fleeing the confines of the soil (via Bar-Ilan University).

Although these animal omens are usually examined after the fact, there is at least one occasion where scientists successfully predicted an earthquake using the behavior of local animals as evidence, in addition to other scientific data. In the month leading up to the 1975 Haicheng earthquake in China, there were dozens of reports of snake sightings. The sightings were bizarre because they happened in the dead of winter in the north of China, when snakes should have been hibernating underground (via Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America).

In 2017 in Turkey, a former politician tweeted an earthquake warning after hearing reports of snake sightings in cities. Two hours later the country was hit by a 6.2 quake (from Middle East Monitor). In June 2022, a YouTuber in Montenegro uploaded a video of a rare snake that's known to emerge from the earth before earthquakes. Hours later, neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina was hit by a quake (via Telegraf).

Science or superstition?

One thing that's often left out of popular accounts of the Haicheng earthquake is how traditional seismology was the primary basis of the prediction. A series of foreshocks hinted to scientists exactly where the quake would be, and changes in the water table alerted them to the impending possibility. In other words, it was hard data that led to the evacuations ahead of the earthquake, and the snakes were a footnote (via Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America).

That isn't to say there isn't some science behind animal behavior being influenced by impending or imminent earthquakes. Scientists writing for the journal Ethology monitored dogs, cows, and sheep on a farm in an earthquake-prone region in Italy between 2016 and 2017. They found that there was a change in their behavior before an earthquake but were unable to isolate exactly what triggered the change.

The U.S. Geological Survey on the other hand is unequivocal when it says that earthquakes have never been predicted. According to the USGS, a prediction needs to specify the location, time, and magnitude of an impending earthquake. So far, no predictive method has met that rigorous threshold.

Tectonic whispers

Despite the surfeit of anecdotal evidence in support of animals being able to sense earthquakes, we only have a vague idea of what could be triggering their reactions. One possibility is that animals are feeling the P wave of the earthquake, which travels faster from the epicenter than the destructive S wave. But that would only give the animals seconds of foreknowledge, not hours, days, or weeks (via U.S. Geological Survey).

One possible explanation for animals reacting weeks before an earthquake lies in the strange behavior of rocks under high pressure. Before the tension in the ground is released as a violent earthquake, it can cause electromagnetic disturbances, which certain geomagnetically-sensitive animals could respond to. Rocks under enough pressure can also give off infrared light, which snakes could respond to (via Scientific American).

Ultimately, we just don't know. All of the precursor events we know of can happen without a resulting earthquake. And, not all earthquakes manifest the same precursors. This is why the USGS focuses its efforts on forecasting and preventive efforts, and not snake webcams.