In Beebe, Arkansas, on New Year’s Eve, 5000 blackbirds fell from the sky dead. It was an unsettling start to the year 2011 for residents of this Bible Belt town. Only a few days earlier, not far away, a hundred thousand drum fish washed up on the shore of the Arkansas River.
Then more: 150 tons of red tilapia floated belly up in Vietnamese waters. Hundreds more birds died in Louisiana. Fish washed up in two Florida locations. In a single day, thousands of lifeless doves with strange blue stains on their beaks were found in Italy, hordes of dead crabs appeared on English beaches and on New Zealand shores, hundreds of red snapper washed up that were missing their eyes. With the casualties spreading across the globe and the animal body count rising, many people think they are watching the coming attractions for the Apocalypse.
How can we make sense of so many grave events occurring in such a short time? It simply defies human intuition that they could be unrelated. For those who don’t favour religious ‘end of days’ explanations, the physical world offers a cornucopia of triggers to consider, ranging from chemical warfare agents and toxic clouds to a shift in the Earth’s magnetic field and even the BP oil spill.
The blackbirds caught the attention of Netherlands-based biologist Kees Moeliker, who has a taste for strange animal phenomena. While using animal specimens from the Rotterdam Natural History Museum to make his points, Moeliker describes bizarre historical reports of worms, frogs, toads, fish, salamanders, and even a gopher turtle falling from the sky. In 1896 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana hundreds of dead birds – wild ducks, catbirds and woodpeckers – fell from a clear sky. Moeliker can’t explain what happened in Louisiana over a century ago, but he’s putting his money on science rather than religion. As for the New Years Eve blackbirds, Moeliker makes a bigger point. We know so little about nature that it’s hard to have a sense of what’s normal and what’s extraordinary. “The sight of all these dead birds concentrated in a small area may smack of the Apocalypse,” Moeliker says, “but a few thousand casualties – when hundreds of thousands were in the air – is a case of minor mortality.”
With unique footage of the first blackbird necropsies conducted at the National Wildlife Health Center Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, we discover that the animals suffered from internal bleeding from “multiple blunt force trauma.” At a marshy blackbird haven on the East Coast of the US, ornithologist Martin Wikelski of the Max Planck Institute now joins the case. By investigating the natural history of this species he can assess its vulnerabilities. Wikelski also considers the time of death. It was after 10pm, long past dark. Blackbirds rarely fly at night; they have exceptionally poor night vision. Did something awaken and frighten the birds? Reports from Beebe, Arkansas describe loud New Years’ Eve fireworks shortly before the first bodies were found. The case starts to come together: a panicked flock of birds flying in the dark without night vision skills.
If fireworks caused the fatal flight of the Arkansas blackbirds, then obviously this case has no connection with any of the others. What about the other cases? Perhaps in our investigation we’ll find unexpected connections…
MIT cognitive scientist Josh Tenenbaum is looking for another kind of explanation. He says that after the media circus about animal deaths, people start to notice smaller die-offs that would have previously escaped notice. Tenenbaum also demonstrates that the human brain has a hair trigger for seeing patterns, which means that we often see patterns that aren’t really there. And we aren’t the only species that does this… Ultimately, the great animal apocalypse may reveal more about the networks within our own brains than they do about interlinked environmental events across the globe.