When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather WeirdnessS

Animals falling from the sky like oversized organic raindrops may seem like the stuff of urban legends and Paul Thomas Anderson movies, but it's an absolutely real phenomenon...probably. Here's a rundown of nature's most bizarre and seemingly impossible weather.

Top image via FreakingNews.com.

When It Actually Rains Cats and Dogs

Accounts of animals mysteriously falling from the sky are found throughout the history of many cultures - the first century Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentions rainstorms of frogs and fish. It's a rare occurrence, to be sure, but there are engravings of raining animals dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Even just looking at the last decade turns up a bunch of examples of this strange phenomenon. There are tons of eyewitness accounts throughout history that support their existence - even if some, perhaps even most of them are false or mistaken in some way, there's still a lot of evidence to support the idea that animals really do sometimes rain from the sky.

The most common types of animal rain appear to be those involving fish and amphibians. The last five years alone have turned up reports of raining fish in Australia, the Philippines, and two different regions of India, while frogs have fallen as far afield as Japan and Hungary. Take this report of tadpoles falling from the sky in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture in June 2009:

Clouds of dead tadpoles appear to have fallen from the sky in a series of episodes in a number of cities in the region since the start of the month. In one incident, a 55-year-old man who was caught in a tadpole downpour described hearing a strange sound in the parking lot of a civic centre in the city of Nanao. Upon further exploration, he found more than 100 dead tadpoles covering the windshields of cars in an area measuring 10 square meters. Dead tadpole downpours were also reported by local officials 48 hours later in the city of Hakusan in the same prefecture.

Then there's the fish which rained down on the tiny town of Lajamau in Australia's Northern Territory on February 24 and 25, 2010. The town had previously seen such fishfall in 1974 and 2004. The tiny white fish, which were most likely spangled perch, fell by the hundreds on the remote Australian town, as local Christine Balmer colorfully - and disbelievingly - recounted in a news report:

"It rained fish in Lajamanu on Thursday and Friday night. They fell from the sky everywhere. Locals were picking them up off the footy oval and on the ground everywhere. These fish were alive when they hit the ground. I haven't lost my marbles. Thank God it didn't rain crocodiles."

Even that's nothing compared to this account of fish falling over Marksville, Louisiana way back on October 23, 1947. Louisiana Department of Wildlife biologist A.D. Bajkov offered this account:

"There were spots on Main Street, in the vicinity of the bank (a half block from the restaurant) averaging one fish per square yard. Automobiles and trucks were running over them. Fish also fell on the roofs of houses…I personally collected from Main Street and several yards on Monroe Street, a large jar of perfect specimens and preserved them in Formalin, in order to distribute them among various museums."

When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather Weirdness

Explaining the Rain

What could possibly be causing all these animals to fall from the sky? I should probably start by eliminating a good percentage of them by saying some of many stories are almost certainly embellished. Sometimes, animals will cluster and even die en masse in a seemingly unusual location - for a particularly dramatic example, remember all those dead birds falling from the sky a year ago? - and it wasn't rain that brought them there. The Library of Congress explains:

Because of the popularity and mystery surrounding stories about raining animals, some people falsely report an animal rainfall after seeing large numbers of worms, frogs, or birds on the ground after a storm. However, these animals did not fall from the sky. Instead, storms fill in worm burrows, knock birds from trees and roofs, wash fish onto the shores of rivers and ponds, and drive frogs and other small animals from their habitats. People who live in suburban or urban environments tend to underestimate the number of organisms living around their homes. Therefore, they may suspect that animals came from the sky rather than their natural habitat.

Still, even once you throw out those misreported incidents, and you dismiss most accounts before, say, fifty years ago because of inadequate documentation, there's still plenty of legitimate incidents left over. The possible explanations for these range from the absurd - evidence of the apocalypse or other supernatural happenings - to the sublime, such as when forest officials in India speculated that raining fish were the result of pelicans dropping their food during their migration.

In a cool bit of historical trivia, the first scientist to really seriously attempt to figure out what was going with these stories of raining animals was the French physicist André-Marie Ampère, whose last name might well tip you off that he made his name in a different field altogether. Still, when Ampère wasn't discovering electromagnetism and lending his name to the unit of electric current, he offered the first known coherent hypothesis for why frogs could suddenly fall from the sky. As he suggested at a meeting of the Society of Natural Sciences, sudden gusts of violent wind could lift large groups of frogs high into the air, and then when the burst of wind dissipated they would rain back to the ground.

When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather Weirdness

Up the Waterspout

For what was likely little more than a bit of idle speculation, Ampère was more or less correct. The currently favored explanation for animal precipitation involves waterspouts, a special type of tornado that forms over bodies of water. These are capable of sucking up animals in their path and transporting them high up in the air. Because these waterspouts and other types of tornadoes are on the move, when they do eventually break open and release their unwilling passengers, the animals will be far away from their original habitat, hence the appearance of animals raining from nowhere.

That's the probable cause of the majority of these animal rainstorms, and the aquatic nature of these waterspouts helps explain why most of these storms seem to involve either fish or frogs. As for other, even rarer animal storms like those involving worms or spiders, it's easy enough to invoke other types of whirlwinds or just a particularly violent updraft to get the animals high enough to rain back down.

There are only two real problems with this explanation. The first is more just a random little mystery than anything else, but it is weird that accounts of raining animals always seem to involve just one species. It's always either raining fish or raining frogs, but it never seems to rain fish and frogs. (Or cats and dogs, for that matter, and no, there's no evidence that that expression is related to actual accounts of raining animals.) Waterspouts and tornadoes shouldn't discriminate like that. It's possible that only tightly concentrated clusters of animals are dense enough to cause these rainstorms, which would make it more likely that only one species is involved. Still, it's a bit of an enigma, and one worth looking into further.

The other minor problem with the waterspout hypothesis? Just the tiny little detail that nobody has ever actually seen it happen. Lots of people have seen the supposed result of raining animals - a lot of animals dead on the ground where they're not supposed to be - and a decent subset of those have actually seen the creatures fall from the sky. But nobody has ever managed to see a waterspout pick up a pond's worth of life and carry them thousands of feet into the air. Admittedly, it isn't wise to stand that near a waterspout when it's doing its thing. But under the circumstances, I think we can only really call this a provisional explanation.

When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather Weirdness

Lluvia de Peces

While some places seem to attract raining animals more than others - remember Lajamau, Australia and its forty years of occasional fish rain - there's probably nowhere in the world more familiar with this bizarre phenomenon than the Department of Yoro in the Central American country of Honduras. The department's capital city of Yoro is said to be home to an almost yearly rain of fish that supposedly dates back over a century. I say "probably" and "supposedly" because, well, firsthand documentation of this phenomenon is scarce. A member of Seattle University's International Development Internship Program offers one of the few available English language accounts of this phenomenon from his travels in Honduras back in 2006, though he is only able to describe what others told him:

A massive storm hits the surrounding countryside of the village with swirling winds and thick, pouring rain. Out of no where appear dozens of live fish right there on the fields, flapping in the rain water. The locals believe this to be a miracle from God, finding no explanation other than fish falling down from heaven. In the 1970's, National Geographic sent a few professionals to report on this world wonder. They discovered that all the fish were approximately the same size, around 6 inches, and completely blind. They identified the species but found no record of it in any surrounding bodies of water. Their theory was that these fish are from underground rivers, never exposed to light and thus blind. How they come to appear every August with a storm is still a mystery.

Of course, if those fish are coming from underground rivers, then it's possible the intense August storms simply force these fish up onto the streets rather than having them actually rain down from the sky. The other, rather more unlikely idea is that the non-local fish are somehow being brought in from the Atlantic Ocean a hundred miles away, but it really seems to defy belief that a yearly cycle could carry fish from the ocean to this one small town and nowhere else.

While this particular example is probably on shakier ground than the others - indeed, as the most extraordinary claim of the bunch, it requires the most extraordinary evidence, and there's not all that much of that - the existence of raining animals as a general phenomenon seems reasonably certain. As legends go, it's one of the more insane ones, and yet this is one of the exceedingly rare examples where there's probably something to it...although it still pays to be skeptical when evaluating specific cases.

When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather WeirdnessS

The Orange Snow of Siberia

While animals are the most dramatic example of things that rain that are not, in fact, rain, there are a few other quite recent examples of weather anomalies that are nearly as bizarre. One such case is is the orange snow that fell over parts of Siberia back in January 2007. The Guardian describes the surreal, and I've got to imagine kinda terrifying scene:

When locals in the small village of Pudinskoye woke up on Wednesday they immediately noticed something rather strange: the snow falling from the sky was orange. In fact, three regions of southern Siberia - a vast area of industrial towns, pine trees and the odd bear - today reported the same mysterious phenomenon. Not only was the snow not white, it also smelt bad. Most of the snow was orange. But some of it was red and yellow as well, officials confirmed, after scrambling to the affected areas to dig up samples. And it was also oily, they discovered.

The affected area was primarily in the Omsk region, which is located about 1,500 miles from Moscow right on the southern border between Russia and Kazakhstan. The initial explanations for the orange snow centered on pollution, and it isn't hard to see why. The region is home to massive oil field, a chemicals factory, and a nuclear power plant, not to mention its proximity to parts of Kazakhstan used in old Soviet nuclear tests. Any of those could theoretically have caused the pollution that led to the orange snow.

And yet the most probable explanation - and the reason why this story appears in this post as opposed to a piece on "The Most Bizarre Industrial Pollutants" - was likely natural and, despite the admittedly gross appearance of the snow, relatively benign. An unusually heavy sandstorm had just blown through Kazakhstan, and the thinking is that the sand combined with the snow to create this unpleasant orange hybrid. This idea is backed up by the unusually high quantities of clay and dust recovered from the orange snow samples.

Rain of Blood

There are examples of blood rain - or, more technically, examples of rain that is the color of blood. Reports of this rain are even more ancient and widespread than those of raining animals, with a reference to the phenomenon found all the way back in Homer's Iliad...although, of course, that one may not have been intended as an accurate depiction of actual meteorological events.

While blood rain mostly shows up as a literary device, at least some of the references made in the 2,800 years since the Iliad are probably meant to describe real historic occurrences, at least as far as the chroniclers were concerned. The best attested instance of blood rain was that which fell over the southern Indian state of Kerala from July 25 to September 23, 2001. On and off throughout this period, heavy rainstorms turned mostly red, although yellow, green, and black rain was also said to fall. The Center for Earth Science Studies investigated the matter and, in their final report, offered a useful overview of all the known ways that rain can turn bloody:

A search for possible earlier occurrences of red rain the world over revealed only a handful of reports mostly from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Where scientifically studied, the reason for the colour was found to be suspended dust particles, dissolved salts or pollutants. The sources for these contaminants were variously attributed to Saharan dust, micro- organisms of African and South American origin and meteoric dust. In an article on red rain, W.M. McAtee suggested that the color could be due to the presence of rapidly multiplying reddish algae and rotifers living in rainwater. The cause of red colour in rainwater during a rainfall in 1880 was determined to be the presence of the alga Protococcus fluvialis. Chemical analysis of the composition of red rain that fell in Sicily in 1872 showed the presence of several organic and inorganic compounds, and was accompanied by meteoric dust.

In this particular instance, the CESS investigators concluded that the red rain was "due to the presence in rainwater of significant quantities of coloured lichen-forming algal spores of local origin", and that they could find no evidence of any dust of either "meteoric, volcanic or desert origin." That would have probably been the end of the matter if not for a claim put forward by researchers Godfrey Louis and Santhosh Kumar of the Mahatma Gandhi University, who argued that the particles found in the rain weren't algal spores at all but were instead alien microbes brought by a disintegrating comet. As you might imagine, that particular hypothesis has not yet established a firm foothold in the scientific mainstream.

When It Rains Animals: The Science of True Weather Weirdness

Meat Falls Over Kentucky

I'm going to close with a story that I feel even less sure of than Honduras's Lluvia de Peces. For one thing, the incident goes back to 1876, which makes really strong direct documentation an impossibility. The whole thing is so bizarre that, if it hadn't been reported on in a contemporary issue of Scientific American, I probably would dismiss it out of hand as an obvious legend. Still, there's no better way to end our exploration of impossible precipitation than with a look at the Kentucky Meat Shower. As Scientific American reported in their 1876 issue:

On Friday, March 3, 1876, flakes of meat fell over an area 100 yards long and 50 yards wide near the Kentucky home of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Crouch, not far from the Olympian Springs in the southern Bath County. The sky at the time was cloudless. The flakes were from one to three or four inches square and looked like fresh beef. However, according to the opinion of "two gentlemen" who tasted it, the substance was either mutton or venison.

A bunch of tests and samples were then undertaken, which seemed to turn up two lung tissue samples, another three muscular tissue samples, and two more of cartilage. Wherever this meat had come from, it had apparently taken most of the original animal with it. What animal this actually was is a matter of some dispute, with one scientist rather ominously determining that the lung tissue could come from only one of two places: a horse or a human infant.

Thankfully, the idea that a bunch of humans - including some babies, apparently - had been swept up into the sky and turned into globs of meat never really caught on as a serious proposal, leaving horse as the prime suspect. Still, exactly how the meat got up there in the first place remains a mystery, though the Scientific American article did rather skeptically pass along one possible explanation:

As a postscript to the story, Dr. Edwards relayed a theory of the event passed on to him by Mr. Parker: according to the local people of Kentucky, the meat was probably disgorged by buzzards, "who, as is their custom, seeing one of their companions disgorge himself, immediately followed suit." As to how many buzzards would be required to cover 5000 square yards with disgorged meat, or at what height they must have been flying to be invisible, was not suggested.

You know, I can think of no finer way to end this discussion than on the mental image of vomiting buzzards. Really, I wish all my writings could end that way.

Image Credits

"Raining Fish" by Burtfaery on Freaking News.
Waterspout by Relentlessly Optimistic on Flickr.
Cave fish by Frank.Vassen on Flickr.
Orange snow via Red October.
Buzzard by leppre on Flickr.