Public Release:  Toads' earthquake exodus

Zoological Society of London

Common toads (Bufo bufo) can detect impending seismic activity and alter their behaviour from breeding to evacuation mode, suggests a new study in the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) Journal of Zoology.

Researchers from The Open University reported that 96 per cent of male toads in a population abandoned their breeding site five days before the earthquake that struck L'Aquila in Italy in 2009. The breeding site was located 74 km from the earthquake's epicentre.

The number of paired toads at the breeding site also dropped to zero three days before the earthquake. No fresh spawn was found at the site from the date that the earthquake struck to the date of the last significant aftershock (magnitude >4.5).

Breeding sites are male-dominated and the toads would normally remain in situ from the point that breeding activity begins, to the completion of spawning.

This shift in the toads' behaviour coincided with disruptions in the ionosphere, the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the earth's atmosphere, which were detected using very low frequency (VLF) radio sounding.

The release of radon gas, or gravity waves prior to an earthquake have both been attributed to changes in atmospheric electric fields and currents. In this case the cause of the ionosphere disruptions was not determined.

Other environmental changes that affect toad behaviour, including lunar phases and changing weather conditions were accounted for. The number of toads breeding at the study site was known to increase during a full moon. However, following the earthquake the number of toads present during a full moon was 34, in comparison to between 67 and 175 individuals in previous years.

"Our study is one of 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," says lead author Dr Rachel Grant.

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Editorial Notes

The Journal of Zoology, published by the Zoological Society of London, is a leading scientific journal publishing hypothesis-driven papers that advance our knowledge of animals and their systems. For further information please visit http://www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=0952-8369

The Open University

The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK's latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK's top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University's research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

The Open University is the UK's largest university and the world leader in distance education, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2009. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, more than 1,100 are postgraduate research students. The latest edition of the Open University's Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from: www.open.ac.uk/research/research-highlights.

Open Research Online (ORO), the University's freely accessible repository of research publications, is available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk. ORO has around 30,000 visitors from 170 different countries each month, and is currently ranked the fifth best higher education repository in the UK by the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR).

Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation overseas. For further information please visit www.zsl.org.

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