Goats Are Superheroes!
Can goats predict seismic activity?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Anita B. Stone
There are many unknowns about goats. One surprising characteristic of goats has been receiving recent attention: the possibility that these versatile four-legged animals have the capability to be a seismic alarm system. Interest in this possibility began with a goat-herder in Italy who noticed something peculiar. His goats, the Argentata del Etna, are a breed of goat found nowhere else in the world. Each morning, the herder, Gaitano, took his goats out onto the slopes of Mt. Etna, an active volcano on the coast of Sicily. He knows that on the upper slopes of the mountain, there are glades of a yellow flower that he believes gives his goats’ milk a unique taste. “The goats will eat just about anything,” he says, as he hurriedly encourages them to the flower area. Gaitano has been a goat herder on the mountain his entire life and during that time, he has observed a bizarre behavior in his goats. He noticed that his goats behaved erratically not only during one of Mt. Etna’s eruptions, but even before an eruption occurs, before anyone else has noticed anything at all. Does this mean that goats can predict seismic and volcanic activity?
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, have set out to answer that question.
A team of scientists attached GPS devices to a herd of goats on Mt. Etna and concluded that the goats’ movement do correlate with volcanic activity. The goats seemed to be moving off the mountain before an eruption. “There are many anecdotes about animals being able to foresee disasters such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions,” says Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. “Groups of goats, in Sicily specifically, actually display signs of physiological and social nervousness leading up to volcanic activity or leading up to an earthquake.”
Whenever a major eruption was imminent, the researchers observed that the goats were already perturbed, hours before, running up and down the slopes or hiding under bushes and trees when they had the opportunity. By recording goat movements around the clock, the researchers learned to interpret the relevant goat behavior. Doing so enabled the scientists to reliably predict each of the mountain’s major eruptions earlier than registered on seismic instruments.
On another front, an international space station is using animals to predict national disasters. Spacewalking Cosmonauts set up antennae for tracking birds, then they released a series of tiny satellites. Two Russians on the ship were responsible for installing antennae for a German-led animal tracking project known an “Icarus” (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space). This project began tracking blackbirds and turtle doves outfitted with small GPS tags. The researchers plan to continue their monitoring project to include songbirds, fruit bats, and bigger wildlife. They use ear tags for bigger animals like gazelles, jaguars, camels, and elephants and leg-bands for storks. Jeremy Wang, chief technical officer with a Canadian drone company, The Sky Guys, associated with these research efforts, says the scope of research includes forecasting natural disasters along with other areas of animal science. “We are looking at things like migration patterns and disease transmissions. One of the really interesting areas that the Icarus corporation has been looking at, is volcanic activity and earthquakes. As part of that study, we noticed a change in goat behavior.” Wang states, also, “Some have shown to have unusual talents, which are still being discovered. Goats learn quickly to go around a barrier to get to food once they watch humans do it. They have a keen sixth sense to many events.” Seventeen goats and a sheep took part in a behavior study. Researchers attached GPS devices to the goats and found that their movements correlated with volcanic activity. “It’s as if they have an intimate connection to the Earth.” Wang stated. Could it be a vibration in the ground or a smell in the air? No one is sure, yet, what is triggering their retreat, but the rumor remains that if you see a goat running or hiding, it might pay to follow it!
Ongoing studies are continuing to monitor and document the start, duration, and progression of volcanic eruptions, and researchers were able to establish that when a severe eruption began, the goats had been unusually active about six hours before the event. “The goats suddenly get very active,” says Wikelski. “Something unsettled them. When all of them react almost simultaneously, there must really be something going on.” Global monitoring and tracking of animals’ behavior have been enormously successful in several areas of interest and it seems that it has helped us understand that goats have a keen instinct for what’s happening inside a volcano. Goats have a great deal to offer with their ability to exhibit early warnings of volcanic eruptions.
“Perhaps they perceive the smell of rising magma leaking through the ground,” offers Wikelski. “But even if the mechanisms haven’t yet been clarified, the goats do seem to be superior to the technical equipment currently available to volcanologists when it comes to early detection.”
Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.