In a storm in Norway, 323 Reindeer were killed by lightning. Hunters in a remote area discovered the bodies. We usually hear about lightning striking people, but it does kill animals, too. Two scientists at an Australian research institute have found that everything from seal pups to wild turkeys to elephants and giraffes can be killed by lightning.
Was this a freak accident, or is it common? And how does this happen? I spoke to John Jensenius, a lightning safety expert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to learn about the science behind these deadly herd strikes.
Animals do tend to group together in storms and huddle under trees. If lightning strikes the tree or somewhere nearby, the entire group can be killed. We don’t know how common this is because it’s hard to track, though usually it’s herds of 10 or 20 animals that get killed.
In the case where the animals are huddling under a tree, oftentimes you’ll see some visible signs on the tree, though you may not see any visible signs on the animals themselves. In this case, it’s hard to know where lightning struck based on the pictures, but there may be an animal among the dead animals that has visible signs, like a bit of charring on the skin.
What exactly is it about lightning that kills these animals?
It’s the electricity going into your body. It passes through the nervous system and your nerves, and the deadly part is that it stops the heart. In the case of people, many can be revived with CPR if tended to immediately but with reindeer, it just would have stopped their hearts.
What are some other types of lightning besides the ground current and the direct strike?
There’s the side flash. That’s when an animal or person is standing close to the tree, the tree is hit by lightning, and then the lightning jumps from tree to person or animal. The side flash usually kills one or a small number of animals, not large ones like with ground currents.
There’s also something called a “wall conduction,” which is when something plugged into the wall is a direct connection to a wire outside. So if the wire outside is struck, the lightning will follow the wire and you can be shocked.