July 24th, 2008 by Levi Novey
When you were younger, did you ever own an ant farm? I’m still begging my wife to get me a glow-in-the-dark one that we saw several years ago in a science center gift shop. Ok, begging might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but I’d still like the novelty gift.
In any case, when we saw the ant farm it made me think fondly back on the several ant farm colonies I had as a child, and how interesting and cool the ants were to watch as they built their tunnels. I never had any idea though that ants might be able to predict earthquakes.
Now a man in Turkey, Kadir Sutcu, is using several ant colonies in his home to predict when earthquakes will occur. As the article I read claims, in early July Sutcu was successful in predicting an earthquake before its occurrence by watching the behavior of his ants. Supposedly, he even sent out thousands of emails warning people before the earthquake hit (I wonder how many people took him seriously at that time, and also how many do now).
Sutcu does not claim to be an expert, but says that his ants started behaving in a distressed manner and that some started dying about 24 hours before the earthquake occurred. He has a website where he publicly records his data and findings. Unfortunately for me and probably most of you readers, the website is written in a foreign language (Turkish anyone?). But just how plausible is it that ants can predict earthquakes?
Guess What? Several Scientists Were Doing a Study on Ants When an Earthquake Occurred. They Were Able to Use the Data They Were Collecting to Put the Question of Whether or Not Ants Can Predict Earthquakes to Test
There has been a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence that ants can predict earthquakes. Conducting a scientific study to test this idea though is challenging given the unpredictable nature of earthquakes. Luckily for us, biologists John Lighton and Frances Duncan just happened to be collecting data about the behavior of desert harvester ant colonies in California’s Mojave Desert during the magnitude 7.4 Landers Earthquake of 1992 and its subsequent aftershocks.
While Lighton and Duncan’s data was intended to answer other research questions about ants, they were also able to use it for the duel purpose of finding out whether or not these particular ants provided any indications that the earthquake and its aftershocks were going to occur. They published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology in a 2005 paper titled “Shaken not stirred: a serendipitous study of ants and earthquakes.” While the paper is only five pages, a good summary of the story of the researchers and their findings is also available here.
So what did their results show? The researchers found absolutely no evidence that the ants in their study were influenced by earthquakes or that the ants provided any behavioral signs that would help predict earthquakes.
So does this mean Kadir Sutcu and his ants are frauds? Not necessarily. I’m not sure which species of ants he uses to predict earthquakes, but I bet they are not Mojave Desert Harvester Ants. There is amazing diversity in the ant world, and there are over 14,000 documented species of ants (with many more still yet to be documented no doubt).
Given the specific behaviors that some ant species have developed (e.g., leaf-cutting ants, army ants, driver ants), I would not doubt that some species might have adapted through evolution with earthquake predicting abilities. If earthquakes destroy ant colonies in some areas, then why not? I would be thrilled if some day we find out the answer.
Maybe it’s time to order that glow-in-the-dark ant farm.
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