Bison Running Away From Earthquakes? Not So Fast

A video of bison running through Yellowstone sparked speculation that they were running away from an earthquake. They weren’t

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A viral video of Bison running through Yellowstone National Park sparked speculation that the bison were running away from the earthquake that happened on March 30. By April 3, some news outlets were speculating that they weren't just running away from the earthquake—they might be running away from an impending volcanic eruption—and Yellowstone bison were trending on Google. But, according to the National Park Service, the bison were just running. Because they are bison, and they can run if they want to. 

Erin Madison reported, for the Great Falls Tribune:

The man who originally posted the video who goes by "Yellowstone Leo" on YouTube lives and works in Yellowstone year round.

"I am blessed to witness them (bison) running ... in a celebration of life, in a celebration of the coming richness of the Spring Season ... and running for the sheer joy of being able to," Yellowstone Leo wrote when he posted the video.

He doesn't mention anything about impending doom or super volcanoes.

The video was originally posted nearly two weeks before the recent earthquake, not days before as some sources state.

Anytime a scientific article comes out about geologic activity in Yellowstone or an earthquake gets noticed by the general public, "the chicken little crowd comes out of hiding," [Yellowstone Spokesman Al] Nash said.

There are plenty of stories about animals sensing earthquakes, but once you start digging beyond the anecdotes into the scientific literature, there are a lot more questions than data points.

The USGS summarizes here the current state of research on earthquake-sensing animals. Essentially, it’s not a totally crazy idea that animals might have developed some sense for events like earthquakes. But researchers still haven’t been able to show how that kind of behavior would have evolved, or even what signals animals are picking up on. 

From the USGS

However, much research still needs to be done on this subject.  The author suggests establishing a baseline behavior pattern that can be compared with reactions of various environmental stimuli, and then testing various potential stimuli in the laboratory.  Of course, the presence of these stimuli still needs to be researched with regard to precursory phenomena preceding an earthquake, for if these signals aren’t present in the environment before an earthquake, a connection is irrelevant.

Research into the subject is still ongoing; a German project, for instance, will be looking into whether flying animals like birds can detect earthquakes. But for now, it's time to drop the scary music and remember that sometimes a bison running through a park is just a bison running through a park. 

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