LONDON - When it comes to predicting earthquakes, toads, warts and all, may be an asset.

British researchers said yesterday that they observed a mass exodus of toads from a breeding site in Italy five days before a magnitude-6.3 tremor struck, suggesting the amphibians may be able to sense environmental changes, imperceptible to humans, that foretell a coming quake.

A new study by researchers from the Open University is one of the first to document animal behavior before, during and after an earthquake.

The scientists were studying bufo bufo, the common toad, when they noticed a sharp decline in the number of animals at the site. Days later, the earthquake hit, killing hundreds of people and badly damaging the town of L'Aquila.

Researcher Rachel Grant said the findings suggested "that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles." Puzzled by the toads' disappearance in the middle of the breeding season, the scientists found that 96 percent of males abandoned the site, 46 miles from the quake's epicenter, five days before it struck on April 6, 2009. "A day after the earthquake, they all started coming back," Grant said.

The study is published in the Zoological Society of London's Journal of Zoology. - AP

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