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Animals going around in circles: watch out for poisoning

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A video, shared on Nov. 16, 2022, by Chinese media purports to show sheep roaming around for more than ten days on a farm in northern China. In the days that followed, many videos showing different animals also performing circular movements were shared. 5G waves, HAARP conspiracy, harbinger of the end of the world… The theories put forward on social networks to explain these videos are numerous. But these are actually movements documented by science, as several specialists in animal behavior explain to us.

Sheep turning in circles in an almost perfect way, filmed by a surveillance camera: this is shown in a video shared on November 16, 2022 on Twitter by the People’s Daily (“the People’s Daily”), the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. It has been viewed more than twelve million times.

“Hundreds of sheep walk in a circle for more than 10 days in Inner Mongolia, northern China. The sheep are in good health and the reason for this strange behavior remains a mystery,” the post read.



Ants, reindeer, fish…

In the days that followed, dozens of videos appeared on TikTok, Facebook or Twitter showing other animals also performing circular movements. Among them, caterpillarsof the turtlesof the reindeerof the Pisces or even ants.

The publications that shared them put forward different theories to explain these behaviors. This video shared more than 1,700 times on Twitter explains for example that these are caused by 5G waves.

This video claims that these circular movements made by ants are due to 5G waves. © Observers

For this TikTok video seen more than 900,000 times on TikTok, these movements would be caused by human activities through the HAARP. The HAARP project, for “High frequency active auroral research program”, is an American research program which studies the upper atmosphere, but which is accused by conspiracy circles of being used to control the climate.

For this video, these circular movements would be caused by humans via the HAARP program.
For this video, these circular movements would be caused by humans via the HAARP program. © Observers

Some accuse for their part the activities of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, of being at the origin of “opening of portals and black holes” which would be responsible for these circular movements.

Others see it as the result of pole reversal.

For many, it is in any case the sign that something abnormal, even apocalyptic, is preparing. “Animals are warning us of a great event that is coming to Earth,” reads this YouTube video. “Something is not normal. It’s starting to freak me out with all these animals going around in circles,” wrote this user from Twitter. “Sign of the end of time?” this YouTube account wonders.

So are these behaviors really abnormal? The editorial staff of the France 24 Observers asked the questions of several ethologists, scientists specializing in animal behavior.

Ants “captive of a chemical trail”

First example: ants. Contacted by the editorial staff of France 24 Observers, Vincent Fourcassier, who is an ethologist at the CNRS and works on the orientation and navigation processes of ants, was not surprised by these circular movements. These actually have “nothing to do with 5G”.

“It is a well-known phenomenon, described in particular in works from the 1950s, which dealt with the species of army ants. These have the particularity of being practically blind, that is to say that they cannot orient themselves in relation to the landmarks of the environment. Like many species of ants, they orient themselves along “chemical trails”.

The ants, when they have found a food source, deposit behind them chemical substances – called “pheromones” – which will enable them to communicate the location of the food source to other individuals in the nest.

It may happen that some go out of the main track, while continuing to deposit chemical substances. They will eventually come back to the nest and it will create a loop.

This can for example happen if there is an obstacle on the track and the ant deviates to avoid this obstacle, until making a loop.

This loop created by the chemical substance will constitute a closed track taken by the other individuals who will become prisoners of the chemical track which they therefore follow blindly.



In fish, a reaction to stress or reduced light

These circular movements have also been documented in fish. But they are explained differently according to Guy Theraulaz, specialist in collective behavior and director of research at the CNRS.

“There are two types of interactions in fish. They are both attracted to other fish, and they also tend to align with others.

When the force of alignment is stronger than the force of attraction, we see the appearance of benches, these displacements which are very very polarized. And when the force of attraction is a little stronger and the force of alignment a little less strong, we will see these circular movements appear, which in English are called “milling” movements. [en “moulin” en français, NDLR].

These circular collective movements appear spontaneously when, for example, there is a decrease in the luminosity of the environment or when the fish are more stressed, since it is a means for the group to collectively defend themselves, in particular when some perceive predators .”

Phases of collective movements according to the intensity of attraction and alignment.
Phases of collective movements according to the intensity of attraction and alignment. © Valentin Lecheval, Clément Sire, Guy Theraulaz

Reindeer stressed and constrained by their enclosure

Stress can also be responsible for these circular movements in reindeer according to Eigil Reimers, professor at the University of Oslo.

“Such a situation can happen when the reindeer are stressed, for example if it’s hot and there are a lot of insects, or when humans try to herd them.

As soon as the animals are stressed, they become agitated. However, the herd is so compact that if an individual pushes in one direction, it will impact the whole herd. And if they are penned in a circular enclosure, this will constrain the movement of the herd which will thus be circular.”

Birds coming together to sleep in groups

According to this TikTok post which compiles several sequences showing different animals, signs of the supposedly imminent “apocalypse” would be revealed by the birds shouting and agitating.

Videos decrypted for the writing of the Observers of France 24 by Isabelle George, researcher at the CNRS.

“On the video, the scene is Hitchcockian, but it is in fact simple collective behavior, which is quite usual.

They are observed in birds at nightfall. At dusk, the birds stir and vocalize to come together because they sleep in roosts, i.e. in groups.”

For sheep, the hypothesis of a “stereotypy”

As for the sheep filmed in China, according to specialists like Raymond Nowak, research director at the CNRS who has worked on the behavior of sheep and to whom we showed the video, they could correspond to a “stereotype”.

“We are in intensive and impoverished farming conditions. A fairly monotonous life. This could lead to stereotypies, such as the caged lion or tiger circling or walking back and forth.”

A hypothesis also deemed “possible” by Xavier Boivin, researcher at INRAE, the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

“Sheep in addition to being gregarious are influenced by social facilitation and timing of activities. So some can lead to others. We see that all the animals do not turn all at the same time on the video. This may explain why they may not be tired after so many days.”

Despite this, several elements such as “the perfect circle” formed by the sheep or the fact that these movements would have lasted 12 days questioned the researchers contacted. In the absence of scientific studies conducted on this specific case, scientists therefore remain cautious.

“We are based on a short, Chinese video. As long as we haven’t noticed the phenomenon on the spot, we can’t come to a scientific conclusion,” explains Raymond Nowak.

Either way, staying alert to these animal videos is the safest thing to do. A whole branch of science is devoted to the study of these collective behaviors, and in most cases offers much more documented explanations.

The use of search engines specializing in scientific publications, such as Google Scholar or Science Direct, can also provide access to scientifically proven information.

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