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Could toads be used to warn humans of impending natural disasters?



By David Derbyshire

Last updated at 10:29 AM on 31st March 2010



The toad has long been a favourite magical companion of witches and wizards. Now it seems that the humble amphibians may have picked up some magical skills of their own.


Scientists have discovered that common toads have a sixth sense about natural disasters - and can predict when an earthquake is about to strike.


In an extraordinary example of animal foresight, 96 per cent of male toads fled a breeding site 46 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake that hit L'Aquilia in Italy last year - five days before it struck.




Man's best friend? Scientists believe toads have a sixth sense



Researchers found male toads fled a breeding site 46 miles from the epicentre of the earthquake that hit L'Aquilia last year (above) - five days before it struck.







Eyewitness say that before the Boxing Day tsunami struck in 2005 many animals fled to safety. They included claims that: elephants ran for higher ground, dogs refused to go outdoors and flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas. However, scientists have found that animals have heightened senses which sets them apart from humans. Sharks, for instance, can smell a drop of blood diluted in 100 litres of water while lions often hunt at night because their eyes can see about seven times better in the dark than humans.




Three days before the quake, there were no breeding pairs left at the site, according to the study published in the Zoological Society of London's Journal of Zoology.


And there was no fresh toad spawn laid at the spot from the date the earthquake struck to the last significant aftershock of more than 4.5 on the Richter scale.









According to the researchers from the Open University, male toads would normally remain at the breeding site from the start of the mating season until spawning is complete.


They believe the toads were able to detect environmental changes missed by people - such as the release of gases or charged particles from the ground, before seismic events.


The coming earthquake appears to have prompted them to break off from breeding and evacuate the site.


Dr Rachel Grant, who was studying the impact of the lunar cycle on the toads when the earthquake struck, said: 'Our study is the first to document animal behaviour before, during and after an earthquake.


'Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early warning system.'



article-1262382-003A7A73000004B0-609_468x286.jpg Sixth-sense: Toads can come in all shapes and sizes, like this one which is 15 inches long and weighs nearly one kilogram


Dr Grant said she was 'very surprised' by the toads' unexpected disappearance for five days before the earthquake struck, and it was only after the event that a colleague suggested the two events could be linked.


She believes the amphibians could have evolved to evacuate an area when they sensed the changes associated with a quake.


Earthquakes can cause flooding, rock-falls or landslides which could devastate a population gathered in a single spot to breed, and the toads may have headed to higher, safer ground.


'An earthquake could wipe out a population in that area,' she said. 'This particular species are very dispersed and can live up to a mile or two from their breeding site. A landslide or flood could wipe out virtually 100 per cent of the males, and quite a lot of the females.


'A day after the earthquake, they all started coming back. The numbers were still lower than normal and remained low until after the last aftershock.'


Their exodus coincided with disruptions in the ionosphere, the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the Earth's atmosphere, which could be the result of the release of radon gas and gravity waves prior to an earthquake.


While earthquakes are a rare phenomenon, toads have been around on the planet for 450 million years - long enough to evolve a response to such potentially catastrophic events, she suggested.


The common toads studied in Italy are identical to the toads found in British gardens.

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