What happens to animals in a hurricane?

seagull on beach

In the aftermath of a hurricane, some animals will find new opportunities.

drpavloff/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

After hammering the Bahamas, Hurricane Joaquin is now moving north, and, the latest path predictions show, is headed out to sea instead of directly for the U.S. East Coast. The storm’s track has been hard to pin down, which makes preparing for it rather difficult. If you live near the shore, you don’t know if you should board up your house, evacuate or stay where you are.

But humans, at least, get warning that a storm is on its way, leaving us time to make preparations or flee. Animals, though, have to deal with whatever comes their way. And for many, these storms are just as bad for them as they are for us.

The devastation starts long before a hurricane reaches land. As these storms pass over the ocean, they mix warm surface waters with cooler, deeper layers. In shallow coastal areas, cool rain can also cool the surface and make that water less saline. Waves — whipped up by the storm’s strong winds — can destroy objects beneath the surface and move tons of sand that had been sitting on the seabed. All this violent action can be dangerous for creatures living underwater.

Sharks can sense the falling barometric pressure associated with a hurricane and leave the area. But other creatures are stuck. Fish and invertebrates can get driven onto land and stranded by the storm surge. Fish nurseries may be upset. Coral reefs can be completely destroyed; those that survive can take years to recover. Hurricanes have been known to kill fish, sea turtles, crabs and many other marine organisms.

On land, creatures that live in trees tend to be better off than those that nest on the ground. Anything that lives on the ground is in danger of being drowned. Tree-dwelling mammals and birds can hunker down for the duration of a storm and ride it out. The survivors may still be in for some misery, though, if their food sources are affected by a hurricane. If you eat fruit, for instance, and the storm wipes out all the fruit trees, you’re bound to have some hard times.

But similar to how wildfires can open up areas for species to colonize, hurricanes can provide new opportunities for some animals. Storms can strip foliage and knock down trees, but those areas, now open to more sunlight, may be ripe for new seeds to germinate. Those areas could be prime real estate for some animals. Scientists have also found evidence that a hurricane let a species colonize new territory — in 1995, 15 green iguanas floated on a raft of tangled trees from Guadeloupe to Anguilla, across the Caribbean Sea. Such journeys could help species travel around the world, scientists say.

And sometimes hurricanes just shake up the ecosystem. The Hawaiian island of Kauai, for example, is now overrun by feral chickens. According to locals, the population got its start when hurricanes blasted through some coops.

Like human communities, ecosystems may change after a hurricane, but they will recover. It just takes time.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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