An illustration of raining fish.

Raining Cats and Dogs? No, Just Fish

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Last week, residents in the coastal city of Tampico in Mexico experienced a bizarre phenomenon that has been reported since ancient times – raining fish. Civil defence officials in northeast Mexico said that light rain on September 28 was accompanied by small fish falling from the sky.

“Curious case in Tampico where there was a slight rain that included small fish that literally fell from the sky,” the Civil Defense Agency for the state of Tamaulipas  posted on Facebook , along with images of four fish in a bag and one on the ground.

The civil defence agency for the Mexican state of Tamaulipas posted a photo of these fish it says fell from the sky.

The civil defence agency for the Mexican state of Tamaulipas posted a photo of these fish it says fell from the sky. (Proteccion Civil Tamaulipas/Facebook)

It is not the first occurrence of strange objects falling from the sky. Throughout history, there have been numerous recorded instances of fish, frogs, jellyfish, beans, nuts, seeds, and all manner of bizarre and unlikely objects, raining down on unsuspecting people below.

A Long History of Raining Objects

One of the first recorded instances of “raining” objects comes from the writings of Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder, who documented storms of frogs and fish in the 1st century AD in what is now Italy. In the 3rd century AD, ancient Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus wrote in his work “The Deipnosophists” (Book VIII): 

“In Paeonia and Dardania it has, they say, before now rained frogs; and so great has been the number of these frogs that the houses and the roads have been full of them; and at first, for some days, the inhabitants, endeavoring to kill them, and shutting up their houses, endured the pest; but when they did no good, but found that all their vessels were filled with them, and the frogs were found to be boiled up and roasted with everything they ate, and when besides all this, they could not make use of any water, nor put their feet on the ground for the heaps of frogs that were everywhere, and were annoyed also by the smell of those that died, they fled the country.”

1555 engraving of raining fish

1555 engraving of raining fish. ( public domain )

Since then, numerous other unusual instances have been documented, including a storm in Italy in 1840 that deposited thousands of partially germinated Judas Tree seeds native to Central Africa; a dusting of sugar crystals in 1857 in Lake County, Calif.; a rain of hazelnuts over Dublin, Ireland, in 1867; live pond mussels in Paderborn, Germany, in 1892; and jellyfish in Bath, England, in 1894.

Perhaps one of the most exciting “rains” to occur was the shower of 16th-century coins that fell from the sky on June 16, 1940, in the Russian village of Meschera. Archaeologists hypothesized that a strong wind swept up a buried trove that had been exposed by soil erosion, before dropping it back down.

Explanations?

One of the first scientists to address the strange phenomena of raining objects was E.W. Gudger, an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Gudger published a paper in the journal Natural History, titled “Rains of Fishes,” in the early 20th century in which he suggested four possible explanations for showers of marine species.

First, he suggested that certain “out-of-place” animal species may simply be on their migration. Secondly, that fish or other marine species were left stranded on land after overflow from ponds or streams. Third, that estivating fish, awakened by heavy rains, had burrowed to the surface. And fourth, that the fish had been whisked out of the ocean or lake by waterspouts or tornadoes and dumped to the ground many miles away.

Waterspouts have been cited as one of the possible explanations for raining objects

Waterspouts have been cited as one of the possible explanations for raining objects ( public domain )

The latter theory has received the most support. Jerry Dennis writes in his book “It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky,” that theoretical calculations suggest that “golf ball-sized hail requires an updraft of more than 100 miles per hour, which would be more than powerful enough to loft small fish high into a thundercloud.”

The U.S. Library of Congress concurs. Reporting on the latest occurrence of raining fish in Mexico, the library said: "Of course, it doesn't 'rain' frogs or fish in the sense that it rains water — no one has ever seen frogs or fish vaporize into the air before a rainfall. However, strong winds, such as those in a tornado or hurricane, are powerful enough to lift animals, people, trees, and houses. It is possible that they could suck up a school of fish or frogs and 'rain' them elsewhere."

Comments

The updraft at the center of a hurricane, especially a powerful one, would be more than enough to draw small creatures and inanimate objects up into the eye, and deposit them possibly hundreds of miles from where they originated. Rocks, however are a different story entirely due to their mass.

Living, as I do, within several kilometers of an active volcano, I am familiar with tiny particles of volcanic glass which rain down on the area during certain types of volcanic emissions. Larger rocks are ejected during times of increased activity, but normally travel no further than several hundred meters from the caldera.

R. Lee Bowers

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