By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
Animals may possess an innate ability to react to weather quicker than humans, but don’t count on their behaviors determining how much snow is expected for winter or how severe a hurricane season could become.
That is because while there are indications that animals do have advanced capabilities to recognize changes in weather, how far in advance they can predict such changes is still to be determined.
“I certainly think that [animals] have abilities to sense that,” said John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, which operates Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts. “I’ve certainly seen behavioral changes in the many years I’ve been observing animals, but how far in advance, I don’t actually know.”
Linehan’s experience working with animals covers more than 30 years and he has seen many peculiar occurrences in animal behavior as it relates to weather.
Animals have more developed senses than humans, such as sense of smell and hearing, and that leads to their ability to detect impending weather changes sooner, Linehan said.
“Certainly, many have a better sense of smell than we do; they can smell rain coming when it is miles away,” he said.
When areas of low pressure move in, Linehan said he notices that animals, particularly prey species such as wild sheep, antelopes and wild goats, tend to become more excitable as opposed to predator species such as lions and tigers.
He said that animals have an ability to hear things before humans due to a broader sense of hearing in terms of frequency.
“I think there are some things they can hear, whether it be thunder or other indicators that we don’t even know about yet,” Linehan said.
Biophony, a relatively new study that examines collective sounds in a given habitat at a certain time, is another way of analyzing animal behaviors ahead of storms.
Bernie Krause is the founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization that records, researches and archives the sounds of the natural landscape.
Krause cited anecdotal evidence of recording a biophany around the clock in a tropical or subtropical rainforest and how critter sounds can change as a storm approaches.
“There will be a noticeable shift in the biophony, particularly that of birds, mammals, and some species of frogs, which will tend to become silent as a storm approaches, and to pick up again after it passes,” Krause said.
However, Krause cautioned that other factors could be at play, such as whether the storm occurs during the daytime or at night and the density and diversity of animal vocalizations in the habitat.
While animals may have a sense for changing weather, sometimes their behavior doesn’t show they understand the severity of a storm.
Linehan said he remembered on one occasion, during a hurricane, a herd of mountain sheep emerged from the indoor portion of their exhibit to eat leaves that had been falling. He was a part of a storm team that monitors animals during severe weather, and he said he had to throw rocks in the direction of the sheep to get the animals to return to their shelter just as large branches fell around them.
“It seemed like an anti-survival instinct,” Linehan said.
Linehan said he hasn’t seen any evidence that animals have long-term weather pattern detection abilities. Yet after years of working with animals, he said he has gained more respect for their insights and he feels like this is an area that’s “ripe for a lot of exploration.”
“These animals have evolved over many eons to survive in their environment and we are only scratching the surface,” he said. “If you really observe them closely over a long period, they see things we don’t see, they sense things we don’t sense.”