Yellowstone Park Animal Flight: Warning of Doom?

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Recent videos of animals fleeing Yellowstone Park have many tourists and local residents concerned that a volcanic eruption may be imminent.

After earthquakes and tsunamis, stories often circulate of animals acting strangely or seeming to know of the disaster long before humans. Animals that detect impending earthquakes don’t have more senses than humans; they just have much higher sensitivity. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, birds can migrate using celestial cues, and bats can locate food with echoes. Elephants can detect faint vibrations and tremors from fantastic distances.

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It’s not some unexplainable gift: Animals may sense unusual vibrations or changes in air pressure coming from one direction that suggest they should move in the opposite direction.

If a herd of animals are seen fleeing before an earthquake, all that is needed is for one or two of them to skittishly sense danger; the rest will follow — not necessarily due to some supernatural earthquake-detecting sense, but simple herd instinct.

Many bloggers have speculated that the Yellowstone animals are sensing some sort of activity in the supervolcano underneath the park and running for their lives to save themselves from a fiery death. A spate of recent YouTube videos apparently showing animals fleeing Yellowstone Park has many people nervous, the concern fueled by alarmist headlines like “Yellowstone Volcano Eruption in 2014? Are Animals Fleeing Park As ‘An Alert’?”

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It is true that the park rests atop a volcano that may erupt some day — maybe tomorrow or maybe 10,000 years from now. Seismologists say that they have no information suggesting that danger is imminent, so what’s going on?

There may be several explanations, ranging from the mundane to the apocalyptic. Herds of large animals, including horses, deer, and bison often get spooked for some reason (or no reason). They could have been spooked by anything from a loud noise to poachers to tourists who came too close wanting a great photo.

Videos of Terrified Bison?

We do know what’s going on in one of the most widely-seen videos. One sensational YouTube video titled “ALERT! Yellowstone Buffalo Running for Their Lives!” has gathered over a million views and shows a herd of bison coming down a road toward a driver.

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However a better title might be, “A handful of bison trotting down the road,” since none of them seem to be running for their lives. Another problem with the video: it depicts exactly the opposite of what it’s claimed to show. Instead of terrified bison streaming out of the area ahead of some impending disaster, the bison are actually heading into the park.

According to a Reuters news story, “Yellowstone National Park assured guests and the public on Thursday that a super-volcano under the park was not expected to erupt anytime soon, despite an alarmist video that claimed bison had been seen fleeing to avoid such a calamity. Yellowstone officials, who fielded dozens of calls and emails since the video went viral this week following an earthquake in the park, said the video actually shows bison galloping down a paved road that leads deeper into the park.”

If the alarmist bloggers are right, and the bison are running from some disaster, apparently Yellowstone is the safest place to be.

Animal behavior is one possible early warning sign of earthquakes (and associated disasters such as tsunamis), but it must be confirmed by scientists before anyone begins to act. Misinformation and faked viral videos may do more harm than good by seeming to “cry wolf” before a real disaster comes.

Photo: Bison in Yellowstone, as recorded by a park visitor in a recent video. Credit: YouTube