Head-banging Chinese snakes can predict earthquakes days in advance, say scientists

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The Independent Online

As Asia's telecom systems slowly recovered from the earthquakes that hit Taiwan this week, Chinese scientists said they had developed a new way of forecasting tremors - by observing the tendency of snakes to launch themselves headlong into walls.

"Of all the creatures on the Earth, snakes are perhaps the most sensitive to earthquakes," Jiang Weisong, director of the earthquake bureau in Nanning, in southern Guangxi province, told The China Daily. Serpents can sense a coming earthquake from 120km (75 miles) away, up to five days before it happens. They respond by behaving extremely erratically. "When an earthquake is about to occur, snakes will move out of their nests, even in the cold of winter. If the earthquake is a big one, the snakes will even smash into walls while trying to escape," he said.

The earthquake bureau in Nanning, a city particularly prone to earthquakes, has developed a system that monitors snakes' natural behaviour using hi-tech equipment. Experts at the bureau observe snakes at local snake farms using video cameras linked to a broadband internet connection running 24 hours per day.

China is frequently struck by earthquakes, with most hitting remote rural areas, but big cities have also been hit. In 1976, the city of Tangshan was devastated by an earthquake and some 250,000 people died.

Nanning is one of 12 Chinese cities monitored by hi-tech equipment. It also has 143 animal monitoring units. "By installing cameras over the snake nests, we have improved our ability to forecast earthquakes. The system could be extended to other parts of the country to make our earthquake forecasts more precise," said Mr Jiang.

It's not just snakes - dogs and chickens also behave abnormally when an earthquake is about to happen.

Two people were killed and 42 injured on Tuesday when three buildings collapsed in earthquakes that shook southern Taiwan. Even if the hypersensitive animals had caught the earthquakes in time, there was little they could do about the damage done to miles of fibre-optic cable laid in areas of seismic activity around the region. Most internet access in China was still down following the quakes - indeed, this report from Beijing is being written from a handheld computer. The tremors exposed the frailties of the whole system of cables laid deep under water in Asia, which has formed the lifeblood for the region's economic boom.

Mr Jiang has written a letter to the central government seeking funds to build more snake-monitoring stations. "Local farmers have welcomed the cameras and broadband," said Mr Jiang. "They can access information on the internet, such as techniques for raising snakes and demand for snakes in the market."

As well as their ability to predict earthquakes, snakes are also valued in China for their uses in traditional medicine. They are also popular in soup.

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