An Open University life-scientist conducting field research of the effects of lunar cycles on the mating habits of toads found herself positioned properly to observe strong new evidence that toads are able to perceive the coming of earthquakes . . . and then endeavor to get out of the way.
As the Guardian notes, in its piece reporting on researcher Rachel Grant’s recent paper in the Journal of Zoology, there have been numerous “accounts through the centuries where animals, from dogs to rats, snakes and chickens, are said to have behaved strangely before an earthquake.”
With the increasing ubiquity of human beings on this planet, and their penchant for scrutinizing all things about them, once-anecdotal accounts of the “folk” variety are rapidly being augmented by scientific evidence. To the left, for instance, is a photograph taken shortly before a serious 2008 earthquake in Szechuan province in China, showing toads pouring into the streets, knowing the earth shall soon move—clueless humans, meanwhile, blithely bike on by.
Grant was observing a colony of toads in San Ruffino Lake, some 74 kilometers from L’Aquila, Italy last year, when she noticed that the creatures were suddenly pulling up stakes. Soon, some 96% of the males in the breeding colony had disappeared. Spawning had just begun there, so there was no Normal reason for these men to cut out like that. Then, five days after Grant had recorded that almost all the toads had gone onwards, and three days after she had noted that the number of breeding pairs in the lake had dropped to zero, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila.
“I was going out every evening at dusk and counting how many toads were active and how many pairs there were. Normally they arrive for breeding in early March and you get large numbers of males at the breeding site. The females get paired fairly quickly. They stay active and obvious around the breeding site until the spawning is over in April or May.”
One day she noticed there were no toads. “Sometimes during the breeding season you get a drop in numbers if there’s been a very cold night but usually, the day after, they come back again. It was very unusual that there was none at all.”
In her paper, Grant offers a variety of guesses as to how toads might perceive the coming of quakes—picking up pre-quake disruptions in the ionosphere, anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field, “ground tilt.” But she doesn’t really know, and the toads aren’t telling.
The San Ruffino Lake toads stayed gone until 10 days after the April 6, 2009 quake. When all significant aftershocks had ceased, they returned to the lake, and went about their business.
Grant can be heard in a BBC interview recounting her “hop for the hills” San Ruffino toad colony saga here.
Grant has occasionally opined that toads may be skilled quake-detectors because of their sensitivity to gases.
“I’ve spoken to seismologists who said there were a lot of gases released before the earthquake, a lot of charged particles. Toads and amphibians are very sensitive to changes in environmental chemistry and I think these gases and charged particles could have been detected by the toads.”
It is of course the fact that “toads and amphibians are very sensitive to changes in environmental chemistry” that accounts for the fact that there just aren’t very many of them around anymore, as I previously discussed here and here. Human beings are making the planet uninhabitable for them.
I’m not sure Grant’s “gas” theory can account for the pervasive anecdotal, and increasingly scientific, evidence that a wide variety of animals seem to be able to detect oncoming quakes—from birds to deer, dogs to snakes. It seems more likely that animals are simply more in touch with the earth than we are. That is something we have lost.
We have pretty much lost respect for toads, too. They used to help us people, a lot, but now we don’t let them. We have shunted them aside for sprays, and those sprays are driving them into extinction.
In The Basic Book of Organic Gardening, Robert Rodale notes that “90 percent of the toad’s food consists of insects and other small creatures, most of which are harmful. In 3 months a toad will eat up to 10,000 insects, 16 percent of which are cutworms. Mr. Toad delights on slugs and mole crickets . . . The toad relishes other pests too. Yellow jackets, wasps, rose beetles, spiders, ants, moths, caterpillars, flies, and squash bugs are all on its menu . . . [B]efore the advent of insecticides, tidy housewives kept a few toads in the house to eat cockroaches and other insect pests.”
Rodale continues: “Surprisingly, toads actually respond to friendly treatment. When kept as pets, they can distinguish between two people. And like other pets, they can be trained to call fo food. As an added bonus, the male toad as a song ringing with peace and tranquility. Could you ever find these ingredients in a can of poison spray?”
I have been charmed by this description of “tidy housewives ke[eping] a few toads in the house to eat cockroaches and other insect pests” ever since I read it, a couple decades ago, and have resolved to someday, before I go on, try that myself. Assuming there are any toads then still about. And that I can successfully conclude negotiations with these cats . . . .