A few posts ago the subject of giraffes and lightning came up in the comments (go here, and scroll down to comments 7, 9 and 10).
Thanks to an aborted book project that I’ve mentioned once or twice (I try not to talk about it too much, it still hurts), I have voluminous files on accidental or surprising deaths. I said I have something on death by lightning and – here – I deliver. It’s not much, but then, that’s not much of a surprise is it?
Lightning represents a significant hazard in the natural world and animals large and small may be killed during storms. The death of elephants following lightning strikes has been reported and Spinage (1994) discussed two individuals in Uganda that died this way. Norma Jean, a circus elephant, was struck and killed by lightning in Illinois in 1972 (more on that case here; it includes a photo of Norma Jean’s tombstone). There are also cases where wild deer have been killed by lightning, also rhinos (the image above, by the way, shows an Australian cow that apparently survived a lightning strike. Story here) [below: sheep killed by lightning. Read on].
Lightning strikes may be a significant danger to giraffes in environments that have few tall trees and are topographically or geologically predisposed to attract lightning. One eyewitness report suggests that, during lightning storms, giraffes lower their heads and may even compete with one another to become lower in height (J. Schamotta, pers. comm.), though whether this is accurate was doubted by giraffe specialist Anne Dagg. Between 1996 and 1999 the Rhino and Lion Reserve near Krugersdorp, South Africa, had two of its three giraffes killed by lightning – the third animal (a juvenile) was also struck but survived. Betsy the giraffe was killed by lightning at Walt Disney World in Florida in 2003 (in front of lots of witnesses).
While it should be noted that, in the Krugersdorp case, the giraffes had been experimentally introduced into an unsuitable habitat, giraffes, cows and other artiodactyls in natural conditions elsewhere are susceptible to death by lightning and entire herds can be killed by a single strike, typically while sheltering under a tree [examples: 16 Scottish cattle killed, 2009; 52 cattle killed in Uruguay, 2008; 11 German cows killed, 2008; 13 cattle in British Columbia killed, 2008]. A juvenile giraffe at Louisiana’s Global Wildlife Center, named Dusty, was killed after lightning struck a nearby tree. Huge numbers of sheep have been killed when the ground was struck by lightning: in 1918, 654 sheep were killed at once in American Fork Canyon, Utah, and 835 were killed in 1939 in the Raft River Mountains, also in Utah (for photos, go here; the Raft River photo is shown above). Wild cattle, antelopes and other animals have also been reported killed in this way (e.g., Carnaby 2005).
It’s often said that quadrupedal animals are more suspectible to death by electrocution than bipedal ones. This is because a significant potential difference is induced by the distance between their fore- and hindlimbs (and if I’ve screwed up on the terminology here that’s because I don’t know the first thing about electricity), thereby encouraging electricity to flow through the animal and to cause a fatal heart attack (though death via electromagnetic pulse can also occur). There are conflicting reports as to how common this is: I once had to phone up the Met Office press inquiries section and ask questions about it, but they weren’t able to provide any useful information!
If you have more info: please, I’d love to hear it. Is it true that animals sometimes explode when hit by lightning? And do so many cows die from lightning strikes that farmers are actually entitled to a special ‘lightning compensation’?
For other articles on weird or unfortunate deaths see…
- Giraffe vs plane
- Birds vs planes
- Meteoroid vs goose… again
- Yet another bizarre and unfortunate giraffe death
- The ‘python bites fence’ photo
- Passerine birds fight dirty, a la Velociraptor
Refs – –
Carnaby, T. 2005. Beat about the Bush: Mammals. Jacana Publishers, Johannesburg.
Spinage, C. A. 1994. Elephants. T & A D Poyser, London.