Share it! Science : Where is Dr. Dolittle when we need him?

Where is Dr. Dolittle when we need him?

     We have known for quite some time that wild animals are able to sense phenomena humans are unable to understand. Two recent studies have shown that if we could talk to the animals, Dr. Dolittle style, then maybe they could help us prepare for storms and weather patterns!
Golden-winged warbler (photo: U.S. Fish and WildlifeService- Midwest Region)
      Scientists studying the migratory behavior of the golden-winged warbler in eastern Tennessee saw something unexpected as they reviewed their data. The birds were being tracked by geolocator throughout their migration and had arrived at their normal breeding grounds in the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee. Then, for no logical reason, the small birds had changed course and flown about 932 miles out of their way to the Gulf coast and back again a few days later. The researchers thought that this anomaly was some sort of fluke. Upon further review of the data, and taking into account other environmental factors during that time frame, it was evident that the tiny birds had flown away to avoid tornadoes that would arrive there two days later. The supercell storms caused 84 tornadoes and killed 35 people as they swept through the southern part of the United States in April, 2014. The birds had vacated their breeding grounds when the storms were still hundreds of miles away and before any noticeable change in air pressure, temperature or wind speed had occurred in the area. So how did the birds know to leave when all weather conditions seemed normal? It is most likely that the birds heard what scientists call "infrasounds". Infrasounds are those that fall into the range of frequencies below 20 hertz. Although this is below the human range of hearing, birds and other animals can hear these sounds. Infrasounds include winds blowing over mountains, ocean waves hitting shorelines, bombs exploding, supersonic jets and volcanoes erupting. Birds use these sounds as a map when they are traveling. Although it has been noted many times that birds alter their routes due to weather during migration, it has never been documented that they move away from breeding grounds to avoid weather like this before. Once the storms had passed the birds returned. It does beg the question, if we were more in-tune with nature would we be able to prepare better for unexpected weather?
      The next study might prove an old-wives tale true. A common weather adage is that when cows lie down it is about to rain. If cows are standing in the pasture it is thought that there will be clear weather.
photo: Kevin Walsh
Before we had easy access to weather predictions people had to take cues like these from nature to know what was to come. Scientists from the University of Arizona studied cow behavior and weather patterns to see if this old belief was true. Researchers put pedometers on cows to measure their activity. The scientists found that in warmer weather, the cows spent more time standing up. If the weather began to get colder, as it does when a storm front is approaching, the cows more often laid down. The belief is that the cows stand to allow for more air flow around their bodies when it is hot to keep them cool, and lay down to conserve energy and heat when it is cold. Further research to include changes in humidity will have to be completed before we can consider this old belief to be completely true, however, there is clearly science to what farmers have been observing for thousands of years!
      Animals can tell us so much and as scientists we are just learning how to understand them. As we uncover more and more of the mysteries of the natural world and pay more attention to natural cues we will better understand how to conserve wildlife and make choices that keep humans safer. Our ancestors were in-tune with the world around them and in many ways it is something we have lost. I hope that more studies like this will engage humans with nature again. For lesson plans and information on animal communication to engage your kids and students, check out the links below.

Read more:
Animal Communication Resources

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