Tetrapod Zoology

Back in July 2009 I wrote an article on what little I knew (and had read) about lightning strikes and animal deaths [in composite image below, lightning image by John R. Southern; Angolan giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis by Hans Hillewaert. Both from wikipedia].

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As discussed therein, there are a few cases on record where African bush elephants Loxodonta africana have died after lightning strikes, and there are also references here and there to deaths of wild deer and rhino caused by lightning (so far, I’ve found one technical paper: Zele et al. (2006)). More impressive are the instances where large numbers of domestic sheep and cattle have been killed by lightning. Everybody would predict that giraffes are prone to getting struck by lightning, and indeed there are a few reported cases where exactly this has happened. In the case of Betsy, a giraffe kept at Walt Disney World in Florida, many witnesses (potentially 90 or so) were on hand when – in 2003 – she was struck and killed by lightning.

Remember that it isn’t that the animals are necessarily struck by the lightning itself; more usual is that the animals are killed by the current running through the ground.

Anyway, by curious coincidence, two lightning-related stories came my way over the past few days, and they’re too good not to share. As usual, it starts with giraffes (dammit, giraffes really are becoming horribly over-represented on Tet Zoo. That’s shameful, given the thousands and thousands of taxa that I’ve never so much as mentioned). Hamley – a South African giraffe G. c. giraffa who lived on the Glen Afric reserve in South Africa – was (apparently) struck by lightning and killed on Monday (8th November 2010). Hamley [shown below] was a famous giraffe with a TV career; he starred in the ITV series Wild At Heart and was much liked and admired by his human co-stars (Wild At Heart is a drama series about a British family who go to live in Africa, I think. I’ve never seen it).

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Moving now away from giraffes… if you’ve memorised the comments from the 2009 lightning article – and I’m sure you have – you might recall Noni Mausa’s comment reporting a remarkable case from 1932 where a flock of (at least) 52 geese were killed by lightning in Elgin, Scotland Manitoba. Noni says that one of her friends – a school-girl at the time – remembers seeing a car stuffed full of the dead birds, collected opportunistically for the table following their unfortunate demise.

Noni contacted me recently: she’d found a newspaper cutting (from the Weekly Free Press, dated 27th April 1932) reporting the incident. Here it is…

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Hey, I’m not saying this ‘proves’ anything, I just think it’s neat that the story was put on record back when it happened. And it is by no means implausible that it really happened (even if flying birds aren’t struck directly, they can still be killed by the heating association with a strike*: lightning can heat the air to c. 20000 °C). Incidentally, there are loads of stories of dead or fatally injured birds falling from the sky. I might discuss that phenomenon some time, but not now.

* Or by concussive pressure. See the comments.

Finally, Willy Turazzini reminded me that an episode of the TV series Nature Shock (it might have gone under a different title elsewhere in the world) focused on the group of five Asian elephants Elephas maximus, found dead in West Bengal in 2007 and suspected to have been killed by a lightning strike. While there were suspicions that the elephants had been poisoned by poachers, at least some experts do think that the lightning strike idea best explains the deaths.

Thanks to Neil Edmond, Noni Mausa and Willy Turazzini!

For previous articles on weird and accidental deaths, see…

For more on giraffes, see…

For elephants, see…

Ref – -

Zele, D., Bidovec, A. & Vengust, G. 2006. Atmospheric flash injuries in roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Acta Veterinaria Hungarica 54, 43-49.

ps – whoop! An all-too-rare event…

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Comments

  1. #1 Richard Simons
    November 10, 2010

    Incidentally, there are loads of stories of dead or fatally injured birds falling from the sky.

    I once saw a house sparrow fall out of a small tree, dead for no obvious reason. As far as I could tell, there were no other birds or other animals in the tree that could have done it in.

  2. #2 Brad
    November 10, 2010

    Umm, that’s Elgin, Manitoba, not Elgin, Scotland.

    Another fairly local tale of animal electrocution: The town of Fairford, Manitoba suffered for some time from frequent unexplained power outages, due to a tripped high voltage power line. Until, one day, a fisherman by the dam on the Fairford River witnessed a White Pelican flying between the power lines that crossed the river there. BZZZZT, line fault, and the bird dropped into the flowing water and the carcass floated away. He told the power company, they moved the wires farther apart, no more problems.

    Brad

  3. #3 Noni Mausa
    November 10, 2010

    Quite right about Elgin, Manitoba.

    Also quite right about the power lines. Our power company changed their specifications for high voltage lines further north, stringing them farther apart so that birds, ravens mostly, didn’t draw an arc flying between the wires. Down in southern parts of Manitoba, the bigger birds either aren’t around or are more canny about electricity.

    I scoped out Elgin on Google Earth, and it displays how very flat that part of the world is. I am guessing that the geese would have been the highest objects for a hundred miles in any direction.

  4. #4 The Phytophactor
    November 10, 2010

    Lightening killed a circus elephant in Oquawka Illinois nearly 40 years.
    http://www.elephant-news.com/index.php?location=Oquawka,%20Illinoisago

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2010

    Oh boy, do I have a giraffe story. Might have to blog it. (It’s not mine, but told to me by a ranger in South Africa a few weeks after the event.)

  6. #6 Barbara
    November 10, 2010

    In March 1990, a tornado along the Platte River in Nebraska, U.S.A., killed an estimated 1,200 geese, mostly Snow Geese and about 2 percent Ross’ Geese.

    Johnsgard, P. A. 2009. Four Decades of Christmas Bird Counts in the Great Plains: Ornithological
    Evidence of a Changing Climate. 2009. URL: http://digitalcommons.
    unl.edu/biosciornithology/46/

  7. #7 veltyen
    November 10, 2010

    Possum strike is similar to the pelican issue.

    Ringtail possums wrap their tail around one wire and then leap to the next.

    http://manly-daily.whereilive.com.au/news/story/two-possums-black-out-2500-homes/

  8. #8 Art
    November 10, 2010

    I would think that neither the electrical shock nor heat would directly cause many birds to fall out of the sky.

    On the other hand when a 2000C bolt travels through air, particularly moist air, it can certainly cause a concussive pressure wave that could stun any birds nearby. Even if not enough to kill them outright; if they quit flying at altitude the fall would finish them.

  9. #9 scidog
    November 11, 2010

    maybe lighting got the dinosaurs?..well those sauropods sort of stuck way up in the air and BLAM..there go’s the food chain…makes as much sense as some other ideas i’ve read.

  10. #10 Dartian
    November 11, 2010

    so far, I’ve found one technical paper: Zele et al. (2006)

    Here’s another one for you:

    Shaw, G.E. & Neiland, K.A. 1973. Electrocution of a caribou herd caused by lightning in central Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 9, 311-313.

    You might also be interested in:

    Howell, J.C. 1941. Bald eagle killed by lightning while incubating its eggs. The Wilson Bulletin 53, 42-43.

    Lincoln, F.C. 1941. Pelicans killed by lightning. The Auk 58, 91.

    Sprunt, A. 1941. Cormorants killed by lightning. The Auk 58, 568.

    Sugden, J.W. 1930. White pelicans killed by lightning. The Auk 47, 72-73.

  11. #11 Darren Naish
    November 11, 2010

    Sorry about confusing Elgin in Manitoba with a same-named place in Scotland, how silly of me. Thanks for other comments and references. The death of Norma Jean, the elephant from Illinois (comment 4), was mentioned last time.

  12. #12 Ian Tindale
    November 11, 2010

    In theory, lightning strike to ground should affect humans less than an animal such as a giraffe, or cow, or sheep, or dinosaur. We are bipedal, and our legs are a comparatively short distance apart, hence the potential difference in current is less, as the ground resistance causes voltage drop across differential distance. There’s less potential difference between our feet, they’re not that far apart when we are standing. With a quadruped, especially large ones, their front pair and back pair are a significant distance apart, which, when placed across the voltage gradient of the ground strike, amounts to quite a potential difference between one end of the body and the other.

    Another factor is that as current passes up one of our legs and down the other, it isn’t necessarily going through our heart, whereas in a quadruped it goes up the back legs (for example) and through the body (and passes the heart) and down the front legs. Or vice versa.

    As for those geese, though, they’re bipedal, with a short distance between their feet. I think they were just being silly to get attention.

  13. #13 Dartian
    November 11, 2010

    Ian:

    As for those geese, though, they’re bipedal, with a short distance between their feet.

    The geese – as well as the pelicans and the cormorants in the references that I cited – were struck by lightning while flying in mid-air.

  14. #14 Dartian
    November 11, 2010

    While I’m at it… here are a few more unlucky victims of Thor’s (or perhaps Zeus’?) wrath.

  15. #15 Jochen
    November 11, 2010

    My grandfather was a hunter and he had a photo of a group of several (10 or so) dead deer at the wall (Red? Fallow?). Upon me asking him about the circumstances, he said that this group of deer had gathered on a meadow during a thunderstorm in a tight circle for protection and all got killed when lightening struck one of the animals.
    This was in Germany, probably somewhere around 1950 to 1970.

  16. #16 Jerzy
    November 11, 2010

    Did you already cover frog rains?

  17. #17 Jerzy
    November 11, 2010

    So, the world needs a study how electrocution risk limits the upper size of land animals.

    I think, Godzilla would be less vulnerable than sauropods. ;)

  18. #18 David Marjanović
    November 11, 2010

    I think, Godzilla would be less vulnerable than sauropods. ;)

    I don’t know. Plasma is a conductor.

  19. #19 darwinsdog
    November 11, 2010

    In theory, lightning strike to ground should affect humans less than an animal such as a giraffe, or cow, or sheep, or dinosaur.

    I dunno about that, Ian. During a summer thunderstorm the rain gutter came loose from the low eave, allowing rain to pour down onto my porch. I went out barefooted and was attempting to reattach the gutter when lightning struck the ground less than a quarter mile away. I was thrown across the porch against the wall of the house. The back of my head struck the wall, and I was temporarily blinded.

    Incidentally, years later when I was teaching on the Navajo Reservation, I told this story to my class. A couple weeks later there was a package on my desk one morning. The door had been locked and I don’t know how they got in to leave it there. It was a sand painting. Not a chintzy sand painting like those sold to tourists but a really well done one like those made for ceremonies. On the back of the board the sand painting was on, was the title “Big Lightning” and an explanation that it was the sand painting done during ceremonies for people effected by lightning – struck directly or made ill by burning firewood from a tree struck by lightning. I never learned which of my students had left it for me but it was a sign that I was liked by at least one of them, whether they acted like they liked me or not.

  20. #20 Charles
    November 11, 2010

    Just saw this posted and it is germane to the coversation: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/72877

    The relevant pictures are fairly far down, but there is one of horse and another of sheep.

  21. #21 pomposa
    November 11, 2010

    In 1994, in the the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Notes and Queries’ column, R.W. Pearson of Leicester gave the following answer to the question “Do giraffes take special precautions during thunderstorms?”

    “Giraffes have no need to take evasive action. Survival traits plus natural selection have resulted in the perfect solution to a potential problem. When a high potential differential (voltage) is applied across an air-filled gap, lines of force supporting a force field exist across the gap. Given dry air and perfect conditions such as exist between parallel flat surfaces, the lines of force are parallel and the force field is symmetrical. However, if the force field is distorted and the lines of force congested, then the potential gradient across the gap is modified and breakdown (flashover) is more likely to occur. Breakdown will be initiated across the region of maximum electrical stress introduced by field distortion. The highest appendage of a giraffe consists of two upright stalks with rounded globular-like ends which provide the perfect interface surface for minimising localised electrical stress during thunderstorms. They act as the antithesis of a lightning conductor in that they ensure that any electrical breakdown will occur elsewhere. Breakdown will be to the nearest point of maximum electrical stress even if that point is much nearer to the ground than the giraffe’s head”.

    – I have no idea if all or any of the above answer is true (I don’t even know what it means).

  22. #22 Jerzy
    November 11, 2010

    I just realized that St. Elmo’s lights can form on any high, pointed object, so theoretically, also on horns of giraffe during a heavy thunderstorm.

    I wonder if this was ever observed or photographed?

    This would be ultimate wild bush tale. :]

  23. #23 John Scanlon FCD
    November 11, 2010

    Not lightning-related, but another perennial favourite at Tet Zoo: unidentified, partly hairless beast washes up on beach, photograph emerges later on a slow news day:

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8122268/coffs-harbour-critter-baffles-locals

    The story references the Montauk monster, even noting the fact that it was identified as a raccoon.

  24. #24 Christopher Taylor
    November 12, 2010

    At the top of the article, “animal experts are unsure what it could be”. But the only experts directly quoted in the article seem to be pretty sure that it’s a possum. By the way… it’s a possum. It’s not even that badly decayed a possum. And as a New Zealander, I’ve seen more than my fair share of dead possums.

  25. #25 Dartian
    November 12, 2010

    Christopher:

    At the top of the article, “animal experts are unsure what it could be”. But the only experts directly quoted in the article seem to be pretty sure that it’s a possum. By the way… it’s a possum. It’s not even that badly decayed a possum.

    Fortunately, it seems that sanity is prevailing.

  26. #26 doug l
    November 12, 2010

    Can’t speak as to its veracity but I have read that the reason bison sometime stampede during nearby lighting storms when is that it minimizes the time that all 4 of their legs are simultaneously on the ground and thereby reduce the likelihood of lightining induced current travelling through their bodies, and that the loudness and presumed proximity is what spooks ‘em as distant thunder is ignored.

  27. #27 daedalus2u
    November 12, 2010

    Pomposa #21, that is pure bs.

    Lightning is propagating as a traveling wave. First there is the “leader” spark which has relatively small current and fairly short distance. However it is a plasma, and plasma is conductive, just like a wire. The full potential at the other end of the “wire” (the high voltage up in the clouds) ends up on the tippy point of the leader spark.

    The electric field distribution has very little to do with where the lightning goes. Mostly the path depends on cosmic ray ionization providing a slightly higher ion/electron level which the extremely high field from the tip of the leader spark works on to cause more field induced ionization. When lightning has already arced across hundreds or thousands of meters of space, a few meters at the very end doesn’t matter very much.

    In the lightning protection codes, a space is considered “protected”, if you can take a sphere with a radius equal to the height of the lightning rod and rotated it around the rod and tangent to the rod at the tip, the space under the the sphere is considered “protected”.

    Air is a good insulator independent of the moisture content. Steam is an excellent insulator. For something to be a conductor you need charge carriers. In gases, those are only ions, due either to background radiation, or due to field induced ionization, or thermal ionization as in a flame.

    Doug, you need a path for current to flow through you to stop your heart and kill you. A running animal has only one foot on the ground at a time and so is completely resistant to ground currents. Even a lightning strike to a running herd would only kill the one it strikes, the others would not be harmed.

    Being struck by lightning is not as dangerous as standing near a lightning strike. The reason is the current in a lightning strike is so high, that the resistance of the body is high enough for the voltage drop across the body to be high enough that air breaks down and flashes over. The current doesn’t go through the body, it goes through the flash-over.

    But any lightning strike or even near miss can be dangerous and cause nerve damage. Nerves are the most conductive part of the body, so they tend to conduct and be damaged.

  28. #28 JCH
    November 16, 2010

    When I was kid we would see this fairly often in my dad’s veterinary practice. Usually one cow, but I do remember going with my dad once to look at 4 or 5 dead cows that were killed beside an electric fence.

  29. #29 Dartian
    January 3, 2011

    Darren:

    a remarkable case from 1932 where a flock of (at least) 52 geese were killed by lightning

    52 geese falling from the sky is remarkable? How about 5,000 blackbirds?

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