How zoo animals predicted the East Coast earthquake

Aug 25, 2011

Before an earthquake shook up the East Coast on Monday, animals at the National Zoo in Washington, DC sounded off alarms. But how did they know what was coming?

Brandie Smith and Rebecca Smithson of the National Zoo chatted about what happened on Monday, and how these animals were able to sense the earthquake that was yet to come.

Hi Everyone! I am Rebecca Smithson, a keeper at the Small Mammal House at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Tuesday was an interesting day, especially at the Zoo. I am excited to answer your questions!

Hi! I'm Dr. Brandie Smith, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.  Rebecca and I are happy to answer your questions about our animals' reactions to the earthquake-- ask away!

What did the animals do before the earthquake that was unique? How long before the earthquake were the behaviors exhibited?

One thing I noticed was that the red-ruffed lemurs started alarm-calling several minutes before the quake. I can't determine if that's what they were alarm calling about for sure, but that is a more unusual call that I have only heard them do in response to something very unusual going on, such as when we introduce a new animal to their exhibit.  It's very different from their normal territorial call. They also did it immediately after the earthquake. 

The black howler monkeys also alarm called immediately after the quake.

What were some examples of which animals and how did they behave?

Many species responded in different ways.  Some took to areas where they felt safest -- for example, ducks and beavers went into the water, apes climbed into the trees.  Others, like our lemurs, sent out alarm calls, warning their troops of impending danger.  And our flock of flamingos sought out safety in numbers, gathering together just before the earthquake hit.

How did the Giant Pandas react to the earthquake?

Our giant pandas didn't react before the earthquake.  They were lounging outdoors at the back of their yards near the building.  When the earthquake struck, they both jumped up and ran quickly into their yards.

I read that some of the animals behaved oddly as much as 15 minutes before the quake hit. Even if that is a bit exaggerated, can unusual animal behavior be used to predict when a quake is about to hit, and warn people in time to prevent damage?

The red-ruffed lemurs did start an alarm call approximately 15 minutes before the earthquake hit. I was very curious as to why they were doing it. It is hard to determine why they were sounding an alarm call. I observed no other reason for the call. The alarm call was sounded such a short time before the earthquake that it most likely could not be used a reliable detection method.

In the lead anecdote of the story, Iris was agitated. The zookeeper looked to see if Kiko was to blame. No, he was lounging quietly.

Does this not disprove the concept? If Iris was sensing something urgent, would not Kiko have sensed it, too? If Iris was vocalizing an important warning, would not Kiko have responded? Thanks for doing this chat.

Individual animals respond differently to things going on in their environments.  Even though they're sensing/experiencing the same things, they're reacting to them differently.  It's a lot like people -- think of how very differently we all reacted to what we were feeling.

It's great to know so many people are interested in the animals at the zoo, so you're very welcome.  We're happy we can do the chat!

Was there any one animal that had a greater reaction to the Earthquake than the others?

There was wide range of reactions across the Zoo, however the birds and the primates seemed to have some of the more noticable reactions. Many of our keepers and animal care staff were able to detect these unusual behaviors because we are know our animals' normal range of behaviors so well. The flamingos rushed about just before the quake and grouped themselves together, and they remained huddled during the quake. Some of the great apes abandoned their food and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in their exhibit seconds before the quake.

It is known that elephants in Thailand could hear the Tsunami hours before it hit the shore because they could hear the low sound of the plates colliding in earth and the low rumbles it produced. So my question is how were the elephants acting hours before the earthquake hit the Zoo? From all the disscussions I am reading it seems all the elephants did was call to eachother. Did they know it was not harmful to them?

Elephants are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground (even using them to communicate).  We know from this earthquake and the one last year that our elephants were aware of something unusual before the earthquake hit.  Their reaction was one of high alert, so they were ready to respond to any impending danger.

For information on a zoo study on elephants and the tsunami, please click here.



Are there any theories as to how animals would sense an earthquake before humans do? Why wouldn't humans also sense it, since we're animals too?

Animals are much more sensitive to their environment than humans are.  Their survival depends upon their ability to sense and react to any changes in the environment. 


You mentioned that the red-ruffed lemurs alarm-called before the quake, but and both howlers and the lemurs did so afterwards. What are some differences in their physiology that may account for this?

The red-ruffed lemurs and the black howler monkeys have very different physiologies. Lemurs are prosimians, a type of primate that is not a monkey or a an ape, whereas howler monkeys are new world monkeys. I can't say if any of their differences would make one species better able to sense an earthquake.

How did your virginia facility animals reacted?

The deer at our Virginia facility (the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal), reacted just like many of the people in DC -- they ran outside and appeared excited!  Then, after the earthquake, they gathered in groups and some made alarm calls. Hmmm, seems like the only difference is that they didn't post anything on Facebook.

I'd like to know how many times in the last year the animals displayed similar behaviors.

The howler monkeys alarm call when they hear foreign and startling noises, or when they feel threatened. The lemurs alarm-called when we introduced an armadillo into their exhibit about a year ago, an animal they had never seen before. They will also sound an alarm call if they see or hear something highly unusual.

I believe you, but isn't there a chance that the red-ruffed lemurs sounded the alarm 15min before the earthquake for some unrelated reason?

It is certainly possible that the lemurs were alarm-calling for a different reason on Tuesday afternoon. The evidence that we have collected is anecdotal, but there is much interest in the scientific community to do more research.

How many days is the Zoo self sufficient to feed the animals?

Hi.  Don't worry -- we're prepared to care for our animals in any emergency for as long as it takes.   Whenever bad weather is on the way, many of our zookeepers spend nights here, making sure the animals are taken care of before, during, and after.

How did the lions and the big cats react to the earthquake?

Our lions seemed to react more to the noises of the building shaking, rather than the ground.  They were probably wondering what was going on inside that could make that much noise.

We noticed one tiger, Demai, who jumped at the start of the quake.  However,  she just came here from San Diego, so maybe she's a little more earthquake savvy than our other cats.

Is there any evidence that animals can be trained to sound an actual alarm?

It's interesting, dogs can certainly be trained to alert their owners if they are about to have an epileptic seizure. Our animals are trained to do many different behaviors to help us care for them. Earthquakes on the east coast are so infrequent it would be difficult to train them to warn people of their coming, because training requires much repitition.

Have the animals returned to their normal behavior or are some of them still a little freaked? ... like some of us!

Our animals settled down rather quickly after the earthquake and soon resumed their normal behavior.  We're really fortunate to have such a fantastic animal care staff here, so we have been able to monitor behaviors and get animals immediately back into their regular routine.

We're having a bit of a technical glitch.  Rebecca Smithson is here and providing lots of great answers to your questions.    Her name hasn't been showing up, but we're trying to resolve the problem so you can see all her answers.

What do the animals sense before the earthquake? Shifts in magnetism? A sound that we can't hear?

Scientists are interesting in learning more about what animals sense before an earthquake, but right now they are not sure.

Did you notice any trends in who reacted to the quake and who didn't? For instance, did the sloths manage to wake up?

Some animals were more obvious in their reactions.  Several of our primate species gave alarm/distress calls, so it was easier for us to observe their reaction.  We know our elephants reacted, but they are bigger and more obvious than some (all) of our other species.

And, if you're interested in seeing an awake sloth, you should definitely check out the small mammal house first thing in the morning.  That's the best time to see them moving -- you'd be surprised at how fast they can go!

Thanks so much for all of your questions.   Please come and visit the zoo and you can see how all the animals are doing in person.

You can always check out our Web site for more information.

And you can also read the great story in the Washington Post!


Thank you so much for all your insightful questions today! If you want to learn more about the Zoo, or our animals visit our website, our facebook page, or our twitter page.

In This Chat
Brandie Smith
Dr. Brandie Smith is the senior curator of mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. She joined the Zoo’s animal care staff in 2008 after 10 years at the Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), where she was vice president of animal conservation. She has written many articles and book chapters on how zoos and aquariums can plan and manage their animal collections, and has also served as an advisor for a series of children’s books on animals.
Rebecca Smithson
Rebecca Smithson is an animal keeper in the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Small Mammal House. She’s been with the Zoo for nearly 20 years and has worked in nearly all of the mammal areas, including the lions and tigers, cheetahs, hoofstock, pandas and primates. About 15 minutes before Tuesday’s earthquake, Smithson heard the red-ruffed lemurs make an alarm call and a few seconds before the earthquake, heard the howler monkeys make their alarm call.
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