This week: Do animals have a sixth sense? Seismologists in Beijing have made an unlikely partnership with the Beijing Wildlife Park in an attempt at early earthquake detection. An earthquake occurred as recently as July last year in Wenan county, Hebei province , measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale. It was felt as far away as Beijing and Tianjin . Many scientists have dedicated their lives to the prediction of earthquakes. A reliable early warning system of any kind could potentially save millions of lives; a worthy cause for study. Thus far, the most successful detection systems for earthquakes have been controversial at best. The data for earthquakes is sparse and it is difficult to test scientific postulations. Many methods have been tried to predict the elusive and random nature of earthquakes. To be useful, any prediction needs to give an accurate location, magnitude and time frame. Even a prediction that only gives a few minutes' warning could give enough time for people to find shelter and save thousands of lives. Methods proposed have included monitoring changes in electromagnetic fields, alterations in weather conditions, mathematical modelling, changes in ground water levels and strange cloud formations over earthquake sites. But for me, the most intriguing is the use of changes in animal behaviour for a mode of prediction. There have been countless reports of unusual animal behaviour before earthquakes in almost all countries and I find it likely that some animals with acute senses could detect earthquakes before humans feel them. I think the trick would be to differentiate the earthquake alarm from a mating call. Before a recent earthquake that hit the largest island of Hawaii, there were reports of fish jumping out of the water like they had just received an electric jolt. Fish live in an element that transmits shock waves much more efficiently than air and it seems likely that these fish felt the abnormal seismic activities well before humans. Also, fish have a sense organ that runs along the side of the body that is able to detect slight changes in pressure that help fish defend themselves and escape predators. The pressure waves that precede an earthquake could seem like a massive electric jolt to such a sensitive creature. It was recently reported that elephants may transmit low-frequency sounds that travel much further through the ground than in the air. These 'rumbles' could travel as far as 2.2km through the ground. It is suggested that elephants, which have special sensors on their large feet, use this mode of communication when atmospheric communications are not optimal. And in theory they may be able to detect the seismic disturbances before an earthquake. Wildlife officials in Sri Lanka report that no elephants died during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that caused the tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people, even though water washed up to three kilometres inland and ravaged the Yala National Park, which is home to hundreds of elephants and other wildlife. These reports are at best anecdotal evidence but I find it not surprising that the elephants felt the disaster before us. Scientists on the mainland have concentrated their efforts since 1975 on using animals as an early warning system for earthquakes, but their efforts have been ridiculed since the method failed to predict the massive Chinese earthquake of 1976. I am intrigued to read the reports of the monitoring stations placed in Beijing Wildlife Park, which are there to track the mood of the animals. The monitors track more than 50 animals from an array of species, including donkeys, peacocks, snakes, frogs, turtles, deer and horses. The park is on a fault line along the Earth's crust and park staff noted the parrots acting in a nervous fashion before the earthquake that occurred in Hebei province. I wonder if the next earthquake will be predicted by a turtle hiding in its shell, or whether there will be a nationwide false alarm caused by a passing tourist spooking a group of monkeys. As for myself, I am sure my pet dogs and cats have a sixth sense, as they know I am heading to the kitchen no matter how sneaky I am, and my dog howls way before any clash of thunder can be heard. But I imagine that since my pets cry wolf so many times, if an earthquake does come our way I would continue to sleep and will be crushed by a tonne of rubble as the roof collapses on me. I think it is time to pay more attention to them.