A rare deep-sea creature - the slender oarfish - is helping Japanese scientists predict major earthquakes.

In Japanese folklore, if an oarfish, which normally lives at depths of more than 600 feet, is landed in nets then major tremors are not far behind.Two slender oarfish were caught in fixed nets recently only days before a series of earthquakes shook Japan. The fish are distinctive with a ribbon-shaped silver body that often measures more than 16 feet long. They have a long tasseled dorsal fin that is bright scarlet and rays out into long streamers.

According to the Tokai University Marine Museum in Japan, an oarfish was caught two days before a major earthquake on Niijima island, near Tokyo, in 1963. When shock waves hit Uwajima Bay in 1968, the same type of rare fish was caught only a few days before.

Using animals as a prediction of tremors is not new.

The Roman general and natural historian, Pliny the Elder, noted that "even the birds do not remain sitting without fear" before a quake. An ancient Greek historian in the city of Helice wrote that he was astonished to see all the animals in the city - rats, snakes, weasels, even the worms and insects - leaving town. Five days later, Helice was leveled by a massive earthquake and sank below the sea.

Throughout history, snakes have crawled out of their holes, pigs have become depressed, dogs howled, and chickens and geese become all aflutter minutes before the earth moves. Even elephants are said to move out into the open, away from dense forest.

Scientists are divided on the reasons for animals' sixth sense. Alarmed by vibrations or unknown electric fields, songbirds in Japan are silenced before the ground shakes.

But the phenomenon of the slender oarfish is different in that the animal is dying or dead when caught on the surface. The oarfish has a unique elongated shape that could make it susceptible to underwater shock waves. It may be stunned and then float to the surface, where it dies of asphyxiation.

Another reason could be that poisonous gases, particularly hydrogen sulfide, are released from the earth's crust during seismic activity. Some species of fish are more sensitive to change in the chemical composition of their environment and die because they are unable to absorb oxygen from the water.

Humphrey Greenwood, of London's Natural History Museum, points to a similar phenomenon with Nile perch in East Africa, where thousands died and surfaced in a lake only days before an earthquake. Gases released from the crust under the lake had poisoned the fish.

"But it could be fanciful imagination," says Greenwood. The slender oarfish is a distinctive and highly visible creature, often mistaken for a sea serpent in the past.

"Just as everyone knows where they were when they heard that Kennedy was shot, the oarfishes' bright colors make it a sight not forgotten."

To link it with some supernatural occurrence that follows soon after - like an earthquake - would be human nature.