When Disaster Has Struck….

It may turn out a boon for scientists

There are always some who benefit from wars, epidemics and other events that are generally seen as deleterious, in fact, disastrous. Take the historic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. It buried the city of Pompeii and its inhabitants under metres of ashes and in this way preserved the “activities” and details of the living conditions at the time of the disaster, which keep archaeologists busy to this day. Or think of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s home near modern day Amama, whose roof collapsed in 1353 BCE and trapped and preserved on its mud brick floor under dry conditions insects, which gave scientists a glimpse into the vermin people in those days shared their house with. Eva Panagiotakopulu et al. in 2010 identified grain weevils, flour beetles, mealworms, pupae of house and flesh flies from that site. Famous are also the disastrous falls of some animals into mud that subsequently froze and then preserved these creatures for thousands of years under conditions so excellent that even inner organs could be examined of specimens that were recovered and thawed.  

A disaster of a different kind (and of tremendous value to the palaeo-entomologist and evolutionary scientist) befell insects, spiders and other small creatures when a sticky drop of resin from a tree landed on them, trapped them and preserved them in what is now known as “amber”.  Some of the organisms known from such amber may have wandered into the stick secretion and trying to free themselves got more and more covered and ultimately embedded in it. Because of the specimens caught in this way, we know what groups of insects, spiders and other small creatures roamed the forests millions of years ago and how these species differed morphologically from those that now populate our forests. The reason for the excellent preservation is that the viscous resin not just entombs the trapped specimens, but that it prevents fungal rot and decay and ultimately, when hardened, conserves cellular and often even sub-cellular details remarkably well. Of the greatest interest, because of their rarity, are small vertebrates in amber. Numerous lizards, a young snake, tiny birds of the extinct Enantiornithes, baby dinosaurs, a small frog, all this and more, for instance, is available from 100 million year old Burmese amber. Amber washed up on Baltic Sea beaches is less old than Burmese amber (only ca. 40 million years) and unable to shed light on the assemblage of small vertebrates and invertebrates that shared the world 100 million years ago with the dinosaurs.

However, one of the most horrific disasters to befall Earth’s inhabitants are earthquakes and they must have accompanied the evolution of plants and animals “since the beginning”. This is why scientists of different disciplines have long been interested to find out, if there is something to be learnt from an animal’s behaviour prior to an earthquake. Anecdotal reports in support of such behaviours abound and date back to antiquity. But how reliable and verifiable are such reports and how long before an earthquake strikes do animals actually sense the event: minutes, hours, days?

There are apparently (long before the so-called P-wave that most animals would feel seconds before the strong and often highly destructive S-wave arrives) precursors that could occur days before the earthquake and such signals could involve tilting, groundwater changes and associated magnetic and electrical variations. There is experimental evidence that some animals are extremely sensitive to even the smallest tremors and vibrations (I’ve seen that in fish, spiders, etc.), but don’t such tremors occur very frequently without heralding an earthquake? That is, of course, very true and people would not have paid attention or remembered an animal’s unusual behaviour, unless there was indeed an earthquake and in “hindsight” one would associate an animal’ erratic behaviour with it. I was puzzled one day strolling along a lane on Hachijojima’s south coast, to see hundreds of dead earthworms, even though there hadn’t been any rain for days. I then thought that maybe the worms had been sensing slight earth tremors and were therefore leaving the soil. I waited for the next few days for an earthquake to happen (not at all a rare event on the volcanic island of Hachijojima), but it didn’t. Well, at least I could not feel it. 

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original conten

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