Yellowstone supervolcano: Videos show animals 'fleeing' but we've nothing to fear

Alarmist claims online mistook normal migration for the animals panicking

Videos of lines of bison and other animals ‘fleeing’ Yellowstone National Park in the US have raised fears that the supervolcano underneath the park is preparing to erupt, but how much truth –if any – is there to this claim?

The clip in question was uploaded to YouTube with the title “ALERT! Yellowstone Buffalo Running for Their Lives!” and quickly circulated around online blogs with one commentator, a survivalist named Tom Lupshu, offering a typical assessment that the animals had detected “something vast and deadly.”

“The Yellowstone supervolcano is the only thing there that would fit the bill,” says Lupshu.

But is the supervolcano really that scary? Well, in theory, yes. After asteroid strikes, supervolcanoes are the "second most globally cataclysmic event" that can affect the Earth, and in the past they've been responsible for mass extinctions and 'volcanic winters' lasting for year.

The Yellowstone supervolcano itself is an active hotspot, it has a massive magma chamber (scientists estimated last December that it was 2.5 times bigger than previously thought) and given what we know about its history, it erupts on a roughly 700,000 year cycle – with the last major eruption occurring some 640,000 years ago.

A cataclysmic eruption from the supervolcano some 2.1 million years ago is thought to have killed off thousands of prehistoric animals and covered nearly half of North America with ash and dust. In a nut-shell, the fear is that Yellowstone is overdue - and that the bison (below) are the first to figure it out.

However, Yellowstone Park authorities have stepped into the breach to clear up the muddle, with Public Affairs chief Al Nash calmly pointing out that the video of the bison 'fleeing' actually shows normal migration patterns.

“We do have bison, elk and other animals that have moved outside the park recently,” explains Nash in a video on YouTube, “but they’re doing that because it’s the depth of winter. Food is a little hard to find in places inside Yellowstone and they tend to migrate at this time of the winter outside of the park to lower elevations where they think there might be something to eat that’s easier to get at.”

“When the snow melts off and things start to green those very same animals will walk straight back into the park,” says Nash, who also points out that although the park has been hit by some large earthquakes in recent weeks, none of these are beyond the bounds of normal seismic activity.

For online rumour-mongers though, the fact that the bisons' 'flight' occurred at the same time as the earthquake is extra evidence that Yellowstone is about to blow. However, this just raises another question: do animals really have a sixth sense that can detect this sort of cataclysmic event?

The answer is not as clear cut as you might think. Although there's a wealth of anecdotal evidence describing animals behaving bizarrely in the hours or minutes leading up to an earthquake, there's no scientific agreement as to what forces might actually be in play.

The most widely-accepted theory is that the movement of underground rocks prior to an earthquake generates some sort of electrical signal that is only perceptible to animals, but reports of which animals are affected and in what circumstances are so varied that it's impossible to offer a single, conclusive explanation.

One case-study from Italy in 2009 suggested that toads that fled an area prior to an earthquake had done so because of changes to the chemical composition of the groundwater, while a recent project linking the movement of bats and birds with earthquakes suggests that it's the animals' ability to detect magnetic fields that gives them advanced warning.

Most of these explanations are linked to the generation of some sort of electrical signal underground, but exactly how and why this ends up tipping off the animals is still not fully understood. We may know what's causing the Yellowstone bisons to move but there's still a lot about this phenomenon we don't understand.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015