What happens to wild animals during a hurricane?

By Teresa Welsh

Birds aren’t always successful at sheltering from hurricanes.
Birds aren’t always successful at sheltering from hurricanes. Creative Commons

While humans have the ability to evacuate during an impending hurricane, wild animals don’t have that luxury. So as nearly 6 million humans are instructed to flee Hurricane Irma, what’s happening to our feathered, furred and scaled friends?

Some animals are able to sense an impending hurricane, so they’re able to prepare themselves or try to reach safety. Research shows that birds can pick up on environmental changes, like drops in barometric pressure and infrared sound, that indicate something bad is coming. If a migration season is approaching, birds may migrate slightly earlier than usual to escape a storm, according to Forbes.

But sometimes those birds are in trouble if their migration pattern leads them towards the storm: Last year, a flock of birds got trapped inside the eye of Hurricane Matthew.

Birds that don’t migrate try to find shelter in their regular environment, like in bushes or leaved trees. Smaller birds look for holes they can burrow into. But birds can drown if they get trapped in such crevices, or if a tree they’re hiding in crashes into flood waters.

Other city wildlife, like squirrels, can also suffer during a hurricane. The furred creatures can be blown from their nests by high winds, and a storm can also deplete their food supply of nuts.

And what’s happening under the water as a storm churns towards the coast? A storm mixes together warm water with cooler water found deeper. Torrential rains can decrease the salination level in more shallow waters and waves can disrupt the sea bed. Studies have shown that blacktip sharks respond to environmental cues indicating an impending storm, and flee the area as the barometric pressure drops.

But not all species can detect impending doom, and some fish get washed up on shore with storm surge, and other marine life, like crabs and sea turtles, can also be killed. Territorial animals that don’t leave their homes can be severely impacted by waves as well as lower oxygen levels in the water, Live Science reports. Hurricanes can also be deadly for corral reefs by ripping them up or depositing sediment on them.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the environment is used to adapting and replenishing after an adverse weather event. But the increasing intensity of storms is disrupting the ability of ecosystems to get back on track after a storm. Downed trees in wooded areas increase the likelihood of wildfires or the spread of invasive species.