Toad-based seismic warning system on the way

It’s annoying enough lugging round a canary to keep yourself abreast of the gas leak situation, but now well-equipped miners are going to have to keep a toad in their other pocket.

Not previously known for their prognostigative skills, common toads can apparently see earthquakes coming days in advance, presumably because  it takes them that long to hop out of the way.

Researchers from the Open University were in Italy in April 2009, just hanging out and watching toads, as you do. But one day they woke and discovered they seemed to have mislaid their little amphibians. Ninety-six percent of the males – it’s always the males – had done a runner.

Two days later, the breeding females also disappeared.

The mass exodus came just five days before a major earthquake struck 74 miles away in L’Aquila. Apparently it was particularly unusual, as after spawning toads generally like to just stick around for a bit enjoying a fag.

Surely some connection, thought the scientists.

“Our study is one of the first to document animal behaviour before, during and after an earthquake,”  says lead author Dr Rachel Grant.

“Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early warning system.”

She reckons the toads were responding to the release of radon gas, triggered by changes in the ionosphere, 50km up. Disruptions in the ionosphere were found using very low frequency (VLF) radio sounding at the same time as the toads all scarpered.