On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Animal ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception)

Paul the Octopus correctly predicts a win by S...

Image via Wikipedia: Paul, the psychic octopus, picks Spain to win the 2010 FIFA over the Netherlands on 9 July 2010.

Historically, it’s been commonly believed that animals are more in tuned with nature than their human counterparts and are thought to perceive when disaster will strike. They become restless, agitated or noisy for no apparent reason (source: Mott); bees leave their hives in a panic and birds will find shelter before a storm (source: Nature). But is their “sixth sense” true clairvoyance or are we, as humans, overlooking our surroundings?

Fans of the late Paul the Octopus would fancy the first suggestion.  Paul, the cephalopod mollusk who lived at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, correctly picked all seven outcomes for Germany’s matches in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and predicted Spain to be the winner of the final after Germany’s elimination.

The success story of Paul the Octopus has American Zoos trying their luck too.  Most notable are Eli the Orangutan from Salt Lake City, who won media acclaim after correctly choosing the Super Bowl winners of the last three years (source: Viegas), and Jenny the Elephant from the Dallas Zoo; both successfully chose the Green Bay Packers to beat the Pittsburg Steelers in last season’s final.  Although they have a lot of catching up to do before they can beat Paul’s record, good fortune is not on their side. The odds of picking a winning team consecutively for eight matches are 256 to 1.

Regarding Paul’s ability to decide between the soccer teams, senior aquarist Matthew Fuller at Weymouth Sea Life Park had this to say:

“It’s the first time I’ve known of an octopus making predictions, so it is quite a surprise. They are the most intelligent of all the invertebrates and studies have shown they are able to distinguish shapes and patterns so maybe he’s able to recognize flags.”

Even if animals don’t have a gift for predicting the future, their unique abilities allow them to notice changes in weather or the earth that we would not see without modern technology.  In 373 B.C., historians documented rats, snakes and weasels evacuating the Greek city of Helice days before an earthquake devastated the city.  More recently, a rise in missing pets were documented from the local classifieds before the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. Those pets were likely escaping disaster.  Hammerhead sharks can sense and differentiate between electric waves and migrating birds have an internal magnetic GPS that literally makes them living compasses (source: Dietel).  With grizzly bears and bloodhounds possessing heightened senses of smell  that can detect prey 18 miles away or pick up on week-old scent-trails, it comes as no surprise that animals have been known to sense fires, hurricanes and earthquakes much earlier and quicker than the rest of us.

Michelle Heupel, a scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory, told reporters:

“I think these animals are more attuned to their environment than we give them credit for.  When things change, they may not understand why it’s happening, but the change itself may trigger some instinct to move to an area that is safer for them.”

There has been no conclusive study into the extent of how aware animals are to natural catastrophes, but it cannot be argued that we as humans still have a lot to learn from them.  Animals can identify what we overlook, but do they have the gift of prophecy? What are your thoughts?

Today’s post was researched and written by NMAS intern Michelle Wong.

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