Can Sea Snakes Predict The Future? What About Hurricanes? Lottery Numbers?

ResearchBlogging.orgUndoubtedly you have heard that dogs can sense earthquakes before the tremors occur. While anecdotes are common, experimental evidence supporting these claims remains elusive. The USGS in the 1970’s even examined the ability of animals for prediction “but nothing concrete came out of [these experiments]”.

Cueing on changes in the weather is frequent among the animal kindgom.  Indeed, the daily, seasonal, and annual cycles of animals are triggered to changes in temperature, day length,  precipitation, among a host of other environmental cues.  But predicting the weather changes including large catastrophic weather events such as cyclones and hurricanes may be of another ilk.

Being able sense an oncoming major hurricane or cyclone would prove an invaluable trait for animal.  Storm surges can both decimate and rearrange marine habitats especially in coral reefs.  Sea snakes, frequent residents of these reefs, would be wise to pack shop and head for the hills.

In 2009, the typhoon Morakot passed over the Philippines, Taiwan and eventually mainland China.  High winds, flooding, and mudslides caused  millions of dollars in damage and resulted in the evacuation of 1 million people.  On Lanyu (Orchid Island), Taiwan “winds gusted to 144 km/h during these 3 days. Extremely rough seas pounded the shoreline and washed heavy rocks inland beyond the beach.”  Researchers counted sea snakes in the coastal area before (July), directly before (August 5-6, labelled during below), and after the typhoon (August 12-17th).

Fig. 2 Mean number of snakes counted on various days before and after Typhoon Morakot impacted Lanyu, Taiwan. All counts were made at two sites having normally high abundances of sea snakes, as reported in Lillywhite et al. (2008). The lowest count labeled “typhoon” is the mean of three counts conducted on 6 August, which is the evening preceding impact of the storm during 7–9 August. Vertical bars depict the full range of counts for each period

Those scientists who drew the short straws and sampled during the typhoon found only one single snake*. It is reported this snake was scared shitless. This data suggests that snakes senses the approach of the typhoon even before it made landfall.  But what was the cue?  The scarceness of sea snakes was not triggered by either increased winds or rains. However, there was a positive relationship between counts of snakes and atmospheric pressure at sea level.

Fig. 5 Relationship between snake counts (solid points) and sea level barometric pressure (line) during a 2-month period centered around Typhoon Morakot (days 38–40 correspond to 7–9 August). Vertical lines depict the daily precipitation during 6–9 August. Note the number of snakes counted declines during the falling phase of barometric pressure immediately preceding the storm, and before precipitation increases during the full impact of the typhoon.

So where did the sea snakes flee to once the barometric pressure signaled it was time for them to get the hell out of dodge?  Caverns…secret cavernous lairs that are common in the volcanic rocks of the islands.

*This is the most hard core research I have ever heard of.  I got an idea let’s go sample sea snakes in a typhoon!

Liu, Y., Lillywhite, H., & Tu, M. (2010). Sea snakes anticipate tropical cyclone Marine Biology, 157 (11), 2369-2373 DOI: 10.1007/s00227-010-1501-x

Dr. M (1730 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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3 comments on “Can Sea Snakes Predict The Future? What About Hurricanes? Lottery Numbers?
  1. In related research, sharks seem to sense changes in weather too:

    Heupel, M.R., C.A. Simpfendorfer and R.E. Hueter (2003). Running before the storm: blacktip sharks respond to falling barometric pressure associated with Tropical Storm Gabrielle. Journal of Fish Biology 63: 1357-1363

  2. Wow! I guess I will not complain about the cottonmouths we encounter so often in our stream surveys. Maybe we should go sample during a tornado…

  3. I have a feeling that my graduate students won’t complain so much in the future about the fieldwork I have THEM do…

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