FROM ZOO TO YOU

By Kristi Newland

Can an animal predict the weather? On Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, many people will be waiting to hear if Punxsutawney Phil (or one of the other prognosticators) sees his shadow or not. If the shadow is seen, it’s 6 more weeks of winter. Others believe, based on many years of observation, that if the snowshoe hare has extra-furry feet, the snowfalls for the winter will be heavy, while on the other hand, if a black bear sleeps close to the opening of his winter den, the weather won’t be too bad.

At the very base of whether or not animals can make weather predictions is the fact that animals in the wild have to deal with whatever the weather throws at them in a more basic way than we do with our houses, heaters, canned foods, refrigerators, etc. Animals have a more intimate relationship with nature and need to be more attuned to its signals. Animals are able to detect much more than humans with at least one of the five senses. Animals rely on those senses to survive.

Some animals, (elephants, cattle, etc…) can hear below the range of human hearing (infrasonic), while others (dogs, bats, dolphins, etc…) can hear above the human range (i.e. the high pitched sound of a dog whistle), otherwise known as ultrasonic. Earthquakes, hurricanes, thunder and ocean waves produce sounds in the infrasonic range. There were many reports of elephants and other animals heading to high ground before the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and India in 2004. Big changes in air (barometric) and water (hydrostatic) pressure accompany various storms (i.e. hurricanes). Sharks have been known to head for deeper water after encountering an unusual change in hydrostatic pressure. Changes in barometric pressure have been documented as causing birds and bees to head for home.

In those circumstances, it benefits the animal to sense the odd vibrations or unusual changes in the normal pattern of things and move away from the strange sensation or seek shelter. Human observations and interpretations of animal behaviors have been going on for years and produced various results - Groundhog Day for one, but that’s not all animals can tell us.

“Seizure-alert” dogs are sensitive enough to warn their human companion of some types of seizures before the seizure occurs. The cues are thought to be subtle changes in behavior or even smell that the dog picks up on. For this to work, the dog must be very familiar with the person involved, they need to know the person under normal circumstances in order to detect the unusual cues. While some trained behaviors may be involved in these efforts (how the dog gives the warning), being able to sense the cue is innate.

Animal senses are amazing and whether they can predict when spring will arrive or not, they definitely know some things we don’t. During your next visit the zoo, see what the animals are telling you.

Kristi Newland is the director at Lee Richardson Zoo.