Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

When the Snakes Awake

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

When the Snakes Awake: Animals and Earthquake Prediction, by Helmut Tributsch, concerns animal behavior before earthquakes and other earthquake anomalies. The book was first published in German in 1978 and in English in 1982; it is still in print (translated by Paul Langner) due to its innovation.

The title refers to a phenomenon observed before a winter earthquake: snakes, in the season of their hibernation, emerging from the ground in large numbers. Other ground-dwelling animals, such as mice, earthworms, and ants, have also been observed fleeing their burrows en masse. The panicked behavior of animals immediately before earthquakes has been noted: barking dogs, yowling cats, pets fleeing homes, horses and cattle kicking against stalls or breaking from corrals, dead or confused fish.

Tributsch collects anecdotes from all times and places: from antiquity, from all continents, from the modern earthquake prediction network of China, from nineteenth century naturalist reports, and from his own collection of anomalies from the severe earthquake of 1976 in his home village of Friuli, Italy.

He compares these reports to those of animal behavior before thunderstorms. I examined with interest the appended lists of animal behavior before earthquakes and before thunderstorms. This summer I went to a local lake on a clear, calm day that as it happened was several hours before a violent thunderstorm. I saw unusual animal behavior for myself (all mentioned in this book): loud, frantic singing of songbirds; dozens of fish jumping in the lake; a deer losing its fear of people and spending at least half an hour stripping a tree in plain view.

Could anomalous animal behavior be caused by electrical properties of thunderstorms and earthquakes? What are those properties? Tributsch suggests that it is charged aerosol particles--ions--that affect people and animals before earthquakes. He relates the development of this idea after the earthquake in Friuli.

The evening of the earthquake, horses and cattle in a parked railroad train panicked and thrashed beginning about fifteen minutes before the earthquake. The metal freight cars were nearly Faraday cages: the animals could not have been reached by electromagnetic fields or waves. Meanwhile, also fifteen minutes prior to the quake, a man was assembling a wristwatch. The earthquake struck just as he was repeatedly unable to place a plate into the watch due to electrostatic repelling of the plate. Tributsch realized that the animals had been inhaling charged particles from the air that came through the ventilation windows of the freight cars. Those atmospheric charged particles also caused the static electricity that prevented the watch repair.

Tributsch goes on to discuss the known effects of charged ions on people and in weather sensitivity. He discusses the fascinating topics of St. Elmo's fire, ball lightning, "earthquake lights," "earthquake fogs," and other electrical anomalies. This is a fascinating, innovative book for those interested in animal behavior, exotic electric phenomena of light and sound, or earthquakes.

Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro