Early warning system on four legs

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Sensitive to volcanic eruptions a goat in Sicily

Although volcanic eruptions are completely different from earthquakes, the two phenomena are closely related. Exactly how they are related, and which mechanisms are behind them, has yet to be clarified. One thing is certain, however: when volcanoes threaten to spew fire, earthquake tremors are one of the early warning signs.

However, volcanic eruptions are just as impossible to predict with any reliability as earthquakes are. All that volcanologists can do is determine the probabilities of an eruption. Although not a volcanologist himself, Professor Martin Wikelski, a departmental director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in the southern German town of Radolfzell, is keen to obtain new insights to further volcano research. To this end, the biologist is taking advantage of the “sixth sense” of goats.

Do goats behave differently when a volcano is about to erupt?

In 2011, the researchers from Germany began fitting GPS trackers to the goats. The animals graze on the slopes of Mount Etna, the volcano situated on the Italian island of Sicily in the Mediterranean. The scientists wanted to know if it was true what Sicilian farmers had reported – that the animals behave differently when the volcano is about to erupt.

Ever since, the exact location of the animals, and the speed at which they move, have been transmitted. The researchers analyse the data and identify typical patterns of movement. What they are particularly focusing on are any sudden changes. In 2012, after Mount Etna had experienced a significant eruption, they were able to show for the first time that the animals became considerably more active in the hours running up to the event. They were later to observe such phenomena again on a number of occasions. This did not occur every time the volcano rumbled, however – only during violent eruptions that could pose a danger to the animals. So far the biologists can only speculate about the individual factors that may trigger the animals’ behaviour. They suspect that the animals are alerted by gases that are released prior to a volcanic eruption.

Animals could also make predictions in other areas

Whereas seismologists stick their measuring instruments into the ground in order to detect even the slightest tremor, Wikelski uses animals as “sensors”. Not only may they allow to predict natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions with greater reliability; they may for example also be able to help analyse climate change more precisely. Greater white-fronted geese in Siberia for instance, which researchers likewise tag with GPS trackers, know exactly when the Arctic will be free from ice in the spring. Only then do they fly north to spend the summer in Siberia. To track animal movements worldwide, Wikelski has launched the ICARUS initiative, which stands for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space. With the aid of a satellite system, this should allow migratory movements to be tracked around the clock and the data analysed in future – in the interests of furthering human knowledge.