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Could migratory birds provide early tsunami detection?

If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a tsunami, tornado, or major tropical storm, you may have noticed a curious trend: the lack of birds. Although not fully backed by scientific evidence yet, researchers are investigating the anecdotal evidence that birds seem to be able to avoid impending natural disasters. Going off a tip from French navy officer Jérôme Chardon, researchers from France’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) are now looking into whether birds could offer an early warning system for these events.

Chardon noticed that that bar-tailed godwit migrated more than 7,000 miles between New Zealand and Alaska each year, yet the majority of the population seemed to complete this journey unscathed by large storms. The new initiative, called the Kivi Kuaka project, is led by NMNH ornithologist Frédéric Jiguet. The team has equipped 56 birds from five different species with ICARUS tracking technology. Now, the researchers are watching how these bird species interact with storm systems along their journey.

Kivi Kuaka is specifically looking at infrasound as birds’ potential secret weapon. Birds’ ability to hear this low-frequency sound could be their key to avoiding threats. It has been demonstrated that tsunamis produce infrasound, which could explain birds’ ability to detect this elusive danger long before humans.

The researchers hope to find more concrete answers about birds’ evasion tactics. Right now, their hypothesis is based on reports from civilians such as the fact that birds were seen flying inland before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In 2014, researchers tracked golden-winged warblers as they flew over 9,000 miles to avoid a string of deadly tornadoes in the US. Researchers say the birds were on the move 24 hours before any nasty weather hit, meaning they potentially heard the storms from 250 miles away.

Moving forward, the French researchers plan to tag hundreds of more birds throughout the Pacific. Although storm detection is interesting, the researchers are primarily focused on tsunami detection as an effective bird-inspired detection system that could be lifesaving. Early detection systems for hurricanes and typhoons already exist, making them less critical. Today, the primary tsunami detection system is Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) which uses buoys anchored to the seafloor to detect changes in surface activity.

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