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
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral