Can Birds Hear Natural Disasters?

French navy officer Jérôme Chardon knew how dangerous it is to travel between New Zealand and Alaska. An individual who dares to do that has to face ferocious storms formed in the Pacific Ocean. And so he was surprised to hear on the radio a story of a bar-tailed godwit doing just that — migrating successfully between the two places — and being unscathed at the end of its 14,000-kilometer journey. “Can learning how these birds navigate help coastal communities to avoid disaster?” he thought to himself.

Last January, a team from France’s National Museum of Natural History decided to test Chardon’s idea, five years after he thought of it.

Researchers with the new Kivi Kuaka project, led by Frédéric Jiguet, an ornithologist at NMNH, equipped 56 birds of five species with cutting-edge animal tracking technology. The French navy ferried the team to remote atolls and islands in French Polynesia, where the scientists attached tags using ICARUS tracking technology. These tags transmit the birds’ locations to the International Space Station, which bounces the data back to scientists on Earth who can then follow the birds as they forage, migrate, and rest—all the while waiting to see how the birds respond to natural disasters.
The Kivi Kuaka project is focusing on birds’ ability to hear infrasound, the low-frequency sound inaudible to humans ­that the researchers believe is the most likely signal birds would use to sense storms and tsunamis. Infrasound has myriad sources, from lightning strikes and jet engines to the songlike vocalizations of rhinoceroses. Even the Earth itself generates a continuous infrasonic hum. Though rarely measured, it is known that tsunamis generate infrasound, too, and that these sound waves travel faster than the tsunami wave, offering a potential window to detect a tsunami before it hits.

If ever we do learn more about the birds’ ability to hear these sounds inaudible to humans, and how they respond to such sounds, then it would greatly help us indeed.

More about this over at Smithsonian Magazine.

(Image Credit: Frédéric Jiguet / MNHN-Kivi Kuaka)


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