Can animals predict earthquakes?; When the Snakes Awake, by Helmut Tributsch. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 248 pp. $20.

Snakes as earthquake watchers, chickens as geophysical analysts, dogs as keepers of the public safety. Are these and other animal earthquake forecasters merely folk-tale heroes, or is their ability a fact of nature that scientists have too long neglected?

Prof. Helmut Tributsch of the Free University of Berlin, a leading earthquake specialist, campaigns for the latter view. In this brightly written little book, he reports on that campaign and on what scientists have learned about animals' earthquake awareness.

It should be said at the outset that Tributsch is a true believer. This is due partly to his personal trauma in visiting his hometown of Friuli, Italy, after the devastating quake of May 6, 1976. Tributsch himself is up-front about this.

He begins by telling how the quake was preceded by unusual animal behavior - alarmed barking of dogs, disturbed cattle, the sudden appearance of deer from the hills. Properly interpreted, this clear warning, as he sees it, could have saved lives. This realization has sent Tributsch on a scientific crusade both to learn what underlies such animal behavior and to convince other earthquake scientists that this is a worthy subject for research.

It is indeed a subject that has caught scientific attention in recent years, partly because the Chinese have had some success in using animal warnings. Nevertheless, many scientists feel uneasy about old folk tales, especially when they see no mechanism by which the impending quake could communicate itself to a wide variety of animals.

Tributsch believes animals sense electrically charged particles released prior to a quake by rock stresses or other mechanisms. As he details, somewhat excessively, he has had difficulty publishing his theory in scientific journals. But he has succeeded.

Scientists will find his book useful, in part for its listing of observed connections between animal behavior and earthquakes. Other readers will find it a delightful nontechnical account.

While the author has done his job well, however the publisher has let readers down. In a book that should lend itself to illustration, there is scarcely a chart or photograph. What is worse, there is no index. Several pages list references to scientific literature that only specialists are likely to consult. But readers who want to refer to particular points in the book itself are unaided.

Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile book on a controversial subject. As Tributsch notes: ''Folk wisdom about earthquake prediction by animals deserves respect. Many popular sayings . . . have been repeatedly submitted to tests through generations. Would people who depend so much on nature take the trouble to keep watching animals if they saw no point in it and had never realized any benefit from it?'' It's an intriguing question.

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