Toads: seismic prognosticators?

A post by Chris RowanIs a pet toad the new must-have earthquake detector? This paper, which is getting a lot of media attention today, claims that in the 5 days before the L’Aquila earthquake in April last year, toads which should have been massing to engage in their annual mating instead left their ponds and ran for the hills. The authors speculate that this exodus was linked to very low frequency electromagnetic perturbations in the atmosphere which happened around the same time.
I’m not going to go into detail on this, because Michael Reilly has produced an excellent write-up already, even interviewing Susan Hough, who has written a book on the science of earthquake prediction that is high on my to-read list. Dave Petley also has some interesting thoughts. Given my previous thoughts on claimed earthquake precursors, it should come as no surprise that I share their scepticism about all of this. One data point does not a robust detection system make.

Not a seismologist.

Of course, it’s no surprise that this story has legs: earthquake detection is extremely topical in the wake of two large earthquakes in the last three months, and being able to give it the “serendipitous discovery” spin (study toad breeding, publish on earthquakes!) just adds to the appeal. However, this study suffers from the usual problems with claimed earthquake precursors: is this ‘precursor’ replicated in other places, before other earthquakes? More importantly, is it only associated with earthquakes? Is there a consistent correlation between the appearance of the precursor, and the size and/or the timing of the earthquake that follows? These are the questions that need to be answered before you can move from anecdata to something that is actually useful. They are also questions that have yet to be definitively answered for any claimed percursor, be it animal, electrical, or gaseous. It’s not that the various types of signals that have been observed before large earthquakes have no connection to what’s going on beneath our feet – it’s entirely plausible that in some cases they do – but I suspect that without some new theoretical insights into what that connection might be, we’re never going to be able to interpret with confidence what these signals mean before it’s too late to matter.

Categories: earthquakes, geohazards, geology

Comments (9)

  1. BrianR says:

    Best photo caption ever.

  2. What BrianR said. Totally.

  3. Ozonator says:

    Who would have theoretically thought that the Dr. Roy Spencers were denied climate grant money that went to non-toadies. But, there is no doubt that it is still abused to avoid science. For example, “Send in the toads to test for quakes” (Anthony ‘20’ Watts;, 3/31/10).

  4. Brad says:

    These are the questions that need to be answered before you can move from anecdata to something that is actually even possibly useful.

    Fixed. Also, a plausible method of generating the supposed signals, and an explanation why the toads, or dogs, or birds, or grandma’s arthritic knee can detect them but scientists can’t is also necessary. Given the sensitivity of modern detectors and natural background noise, I’d say electromagnetic signals from DC to gamma rays are off the table as explanations.
    Meat can be very sensitive to chemical signals – my dog will react differently when I’ve been petting a novel dog compared to one I’ve played with before (neither of which my dog has ever seen). Still, you’d need an explanation why this signal is generated before an earthquake and why it is present in quantities high enough to affect animal behavior but not be detected by instruments. Radon doesn’t cut it – not detectable biologically, easily detectable by instrument. And it’s hard to imagine how substances can percolate out of a fault maybe 10 or 20 km down fast enough to be detected pre-quake and not leave a seismic trace.

  5. Silver Fox says:

    That caption really is great.

  6. Ozonator says:

    Thus, hopping toads have sped up the Sun’s Great Conveyor Belt now and slowed down during the Little Ice Age (aka Maunder Minimum, 1645 ~ 1715) (‚ÄúSolar ‘Current of Fire’ Speeds Up‚Äù; Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA;, 3/12/10). ‚ÄúStudy suggests toads can detect coming earthquakes‚Äù (By JILL LAWLESS; Associated Press;, 3/31/10). Made in the image of toads, ‚ÄúSteve Forbes said this about global warming: “There are no real facts to back it up. It’s now become a religion instead of science and great fundraiser for extreme environmentalists … it’s … just bogus science … Forbes may be taking his information from Steven Milloy, who writes for, publishes two blogs, and and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute … FORBES: …[We] don’t really know what changes the climate. It could be sunspots‚Äù (‚ÄúSteve Forbes Claims Global Warming Is a Myth‚Äù; Reported by Marie Therese;, 4/4/06).

  7. Inconvenient Truth says:

    1. Most seismologists do not study earthquake prediction and they are pessimistic for it.
    2. Only a few seismologists study earthquake prediction by seismicity.
    3. Seismometer itself do not work before earthquake.

  8. Lab Lemming says:

    Where were the Mexican toads?

  9. MTHellfire says:

    Blast! I can’t seem to make my toad work. Do you need to kiss it or shake it?
    And next time please write an instruction manual or send the DVD.