Oarfish-earthquake connection is folklore, not reliable

The stories about two oarfish washed up in California have sparked rumors that the beached fish may signal a coming quake. What’s the deal with that?

BBC News – Quake rumours over new beached ‘sea serpent’ in US.

Social media has lit up with earthquake rumours after a giant oarfish washed up on a California beach – the second such discovery in several days.

The 4.3m (14ft) dead snake-like fish was found in the city of Oceanside – five days after another and larger specimen (5.5m) had been found.

Reports on social media recall an ancient Japanese myth linking extremely rare oarfish sightings to tremors.

But scientists remain sceptical of any link to increased tectonic activity.

This piece has some example of what was going on in social media circles as people passed on the rumor. Where did this rumor come from? I suspect that people Googled “oarfish” and came across the supposed (READ “SUPPOSED”) link with earthquakes and, since it’s California, just put the two ideas together. Well, DN readers, you are in luck because I have looked into earthquake precursors, especially animal behavior, and can provide you with additional info on the matter.

Whispers from the Earth

Of all the scientific anomalies that are related to earthquakes and earthquake prediction, none is more curious or mystifying than the heaps of reports on strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes.

From the time ancient people recorded their thoughts about the shaking earth, they have remarked upon the behavior of their animals. The best known story comes from Japan, where a huge catfish living under the ground was thought to cause the earth to heave whenever it wiggled. Catfish have been observed to jump and twist violently right before a quake. It is very likely that the observations helped craft the myth.

Along with fish, both domestic and wild, a wide variety of animals have been described in anecdotal reports as sensing a coming earthquake. Their actions greatly differ.

Some animals eat more.

Birds change their songs or sounds; they refuse to land or preen their feathers constantly.

Underground animals come to the surface.

Caged or penned animals become highly agitated, aggressive, fearful or try to escape.

Wild animals will leave an area.

Domestic animals, such as cats, will remove their young from buildings, clean themselves frequently or be especially attentive to their owner, crying or acting nervous.

Dogs notoriously howl or bark and become preoccupied with sniffing the ground.

Insects may suddenly disappear or appear in swarms.

Aquatic animals leave the water or head far out to sea.

Animals may act confused and appear in unlikely areas.

The strange behavior may be exhibited seconds before a quake or up to a month before.

So, the behavior is real in SOME cases but is not consistent. Each quake is a bit different and may exhibit impacts to the environment prior to the big quake. Or, may not. The reasons for this may vary  – air ionization, gas release, small tremors, sounds.

As we know, mass animal deaths have various explanations. It’s not reliable to freak out about two oarfish when there may be other reasonable explanation. In fact, there is LIKELY to be other explanations. The animal-quake connection is NOT reliable.

In the Japan-oarfish case, it seems more like a correlation but NOT a connection.

Fishermen in Japan reported a sharp uptick in oarfish sightings in March 2010 following the massive magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile that same month, which marked almost exactly one year before the country was devastated by its own magnitude-8.9 quake in northeast Japan.

A whole year and a huge distance separates these events! That is more likely to be arbitrary than hold any significance. We have no exact mechanism to explain this and it’s not predictable. In the days before modern seismology, the only data people in earthquake-prone areas had was what they could observe themselves – behavior of animals and environmental signals. These became of great importance but they didn’t work so well. We are working to devise more precise ways of monitoring. While we are far from predicting a quake, we simply can’t rely on old folk tales to be accurate. They aren’t.

Bottom line – people on the US West coast should always be prepared for earthquakes. Because most often, we are not warned at all.

oarfish bussey

Oarfish carcass discovered near Catalina Island | Doubtful News.

Another oarfish washes up in California | Doubtful News.

MORE: Some scientific reasons why they may have beached.

One was carrying eggs and may have been ready to spawn.

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  16 comments for “Oarfish-earthquake connection is folklore, not reliable

  1. jim1950a
    October 22, 2013 at 8:55 AM

    Over thirty years, three different dogs, four earthquakes, the dogs slept through the earthquakes.

  2. October 22, 2013 at 8:55 AM

    Shit happens before other shit happens – coincedence or selective evidence?

  3. October 22, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Makes more sense to me deep sea species would be washed up after undersea seismic events, not before. Just like there are storms somewhere in the world continiously every day, ditto volcanic & seismic events, & not all cause mass stampedes & beachings. I tried to find another reference to an oarfish in Sweden the week before the US oarfish found but couldn’t find it again (perhaps because it was in French & i’m still rubbish at it). If we were to believe it was a precursor to a major earthquake, then both sides of the Atlantic are going to be hit at the same time by a massive seismic event then? Ocean temperatures & currents are changing, just like weather patterns. Suspect the oarfish could be victim to this just as much as many land species with climate change. I’ll just put it down to odd coincidence & wait for more solid information.

  4. Chris Howard
    October 22, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Oh man! Pacific Rim was right! We’re going to have to invent giant battle robots to combat the alien oarfish scourge!

  5. October 22, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    The oarfish thing is coincidental, but am I the only one who had a shiver being reminded that the US west coast is overdue for a big seismic event?

  6. October 22, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    “I suspect that people Googled “oarfish” and came across the supposed (READ “SUPPOSED”) link with earthquakes and, since it’s California, just put the two ideas together.”

    No, this crazy idea was in the San Diego Union Tribune: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/oct/21/oarfish-carcasses-prophesy-earthquake/

    • October 22, 2013 at 7:55 PM

      Yes but the other link to Japan incident is older. It’s easily accessible.

  7. Lisa Barth
    October 22, 2013 at 3:24 PM

    People have been saying we are overdue for a “big” quake for 30 years. Depends on what you mean by “big” Do the Landers/Big Bear quakes qualify? They were big but did not cause major damage because of where they were centered. When people say overdue I guess they mean the San Andreas hasn’t moved lately.

  8. Lagaya1
    October 22, 2013 at 6:48 PM

    I would be a lot more convinced if they could narrow down the timeline a little. Like 3 days after oarfish, an earthquake can be expected. Also, there will always be weird things happening before an earthquake because there will always be weird things happening. Sometimes my cat jumps into the air for no apparent reason. I suppose if she did that right before an earthquake, I would think they were connected. With all the observable animals in the world, some dogs are going to howling, some cats jumping, some birds swooping, some insects swarming. If an earthquake happens to hit, someone’s going to connect them, when it’s more likely some other cause we don’t realize.

  9. Lagaya1
    October 22, 2013 at 6:52 PM

    Also, “dogs become preoccupied with sniffing the ground”? That never happens except when an earthquake is imminent.

  10. Mike Rudmin
    October 22, 2013 at 10:47 PM

    Nice: I think “not reliable” is a very appropriate way to put it. When you see authorities say “bosh”, in light of refereed articles like the greek redwood ants, then you lose trust, because it isn’t bosh. But when you see “not reliable”, you are seeing that we DON’T understand the big picture and how it relates to the local effects. And that is a realistic assessment of our understanding.

  11. October 23, 2013 at 7:08 AM

    Deep Sea News suggests upwelling as the culprit:

    http://deepseanews.com/2013/10/moarfish-moar-problems/

  12. October 23, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    Oarfish Can Supposedly Predict Earthquakes, Apparently They Suck At It | Deep Sea News.
    http://deepseanews.com/2013/10/oarfish-can-supposedly-predict-earthquakes-apparently-they-suck-at-it/

  13. Chris Howard
    October 24, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    So are we saying that the oarfish incident is a red herring? Perpetrated by those in the media on porpoise, just for the halibut!

    What the hake is wrong with these people? Don’t they know that misinformation can cause people to flounder in a sea of ignorance?

    I don’t mean to be a crab, but I have to say abalone to their stories. This makes me so mad! You all are lucky that you can’t see the anchor in my eyes!

    I tell ya, I’m so upset that if I was still young, and covered in muscles these people would need a good sturgeon!

    Something something fish pun… I need coffee.

  14. October 25, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    NOAA is studying the remains of one fish. Fascinating. http://swfsc.noaa.gov/news.aspx?id=18962

  15. October 30, 2013 at 9:03 PM

    Not a definitive autopsy report but read that both Californian Oarfish riddled with parasites, which likely contributed to their demise. http://www.krmg.com/ap/ap/strange/parasites-found-during-dissection-of-ca-oarfish/nbbyS/ .

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