By jason bittel, nationalgeographic.com
Experts weigh in on the potential effects a Category 4 hurricane could have on wild animals, like birds and sea turtles, in the Southeast.
Evacuations are already underway in North and South Carolina in anticipation of Hurricane Florence’s arrival this weekend. But what happens to the wild animals that aren’t set up for text alerts?
Experience suggests it won’t be pretty, and stories abound from storms past. For example, in August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey nearly wiped out the last remaining population of wild Attwater’s prairie chickens in Texas. Two months later, Hurricane Irma killed off up to 22 percent of the remaining population of endangered Key deer in the Florida Keys.
And though it didn’t threaten specific species in the same way, Hurricane Matthew did drop a Cyprus tree smack dab on top of an American alligator when it ripped across Georgia in 2016.
With Florence now classified as a Category 4 hurricane, it seems likely that the Eastern Seaboard and its animals could be in for a rough couple of days. (Read: “Why Hurricane Florence Is Such a Dangerous Storm”)
For instance, while it’s getting to the end of the season, some loggerhead sea turtles still have eggs out there waiting to hatch.
“Beaches are a dynamic system but large storms do have the potential to cause problems for nests and hatchlings,” says David Steen, a research ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
“Submerging nests for a prolonged period of time will reduce their survival, and some storms may even have the potential to just wash them away.”
Birds Out Of Water
Besides storm surges and dangerous waves, Hurricane Florence’s winds will likely take a toll on numerous migratory species on their way through the area. (Read: “Why Some Bird Species Have It Worse After the Latest Hurricanes”)
“Right now, every night, we’ve got thousands of thrushes and warblers flying out over the Atlantic and some of them are going to get blown by this and end up exhausting themselves,” says Daniel Cristol, an ornithologist at the College of William & Mary.
Migratory birds are able to complete their epic journeys while living on a knife’s-edge of calories in and out. So if a storm knocks them off course by a day or more, they may not have the fat reserves to make up the loss.
“Habitat loss is biggest risk for birds of conservation concern, especially migratory species that need refueling locations to complete the journey,” says Gary Langham, vice president and chief scientist at the National Audubon Society.
Piping plovers, which breed on Long Island but winter in the Bahamas, could be on their way through the area, for instance.
“During migration, these plovers typically stop several times along the way to refuel before moving on. Coastal shorebirds can cope with the loss of one site or two, so long as there are other sites along the way,” says Langham.
Back on land, the tempest-like winds that accompany a hurricane can strip the leaves off of trees and beat down other forms of vegetation to the point where both local and migrant birds alike are left without cover. This leaves birds exposed to predators and without shelter from the elements.
What’s more, food such as insects, fruits, and seeds can be completely blown away. (Read: “This Secret Skill Helps Lizards Survive Hurricanes”)
The plants can recover, of course, “but not in time for that bird,” says Cristol.
“They may have to go somewhere else entirely, but may not have the ability to do that.”
One study found that eight months after Hurricane Hugo hit Saint Croix in 1989, dozens of different bird species declined, with those that rely on nectar, fruit, and seeds taking the biggest hit.
“Birds are remarkably adaptable and resilient if we give them enough habitat to adjust and recover,” says Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count at the National Audubon Society.
“They have been dealing with hurricanes for thousands of generations of birds. Direct mortality during storms may affect some birds, but in the long term such storms are a natural part of the shaping of our continent and bird migration.”
Sometimes hurricane winds are strong enough to sweep sea birds out of the ocean and drop them far inland.
For instance, when Hurricane Newton came out of the Pacific Ocean in 2016, it brought a few hundred storm petrels with it.
“The hurricane came in and just dumped a bunch of sea birds into Arizona,” says Cristol. “They just showed up in ponds and swimming pools there, species that have never been seen before” in the state, he adds.
The good news is, sea birds often move hundreds of miles just to find food on a daily basis, Cristol says. So the animals will likely return to the sea once the hurricane passes.
That is, if they can get back in the air. Shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses all have a difficult time taking off without water.
“Any bird that’s got its feet very far back on its body has difficulty getting enough acceleration to get up into the air,” says Cristol.
This is why the birds will often try to land on large bodies of water once they’re blown inland. Some birders have even been known to race to such areas after a storm to see if they can spot species they wouldn’t normally see.
“I would stress that sensible people who are worried about trees falling on their houses aren’t out doing this,” says Cristol.
“It’s mostly young risk-taking people who do this hurricane birding.”
Salt in the Wound
Most people think of freshwater as being good for wildlife, but when too much rushes into saltwater coastal ecosystems at once—as happens with hurricane flooding—it can be devastating for the animals that live there.
“Blue crabs actually will migrate rapidly in response to these freshwater events. We’ve seen that many times,” says David Eggleston, director of North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology.
Interestingly, the storm surges associated with hurricanes also have the ability to wash great numbers of post-larval blue crabs into estuaries. Sometimes, this can even help replenish populations.
But here, too, freshwater can be a killer. When Hurricanes Floyd, Dennis, and Irene struck in 1999, Eggleston says they washed in a record number of post-larval crabs—but they didn’t survive because the saltwater had been too diluted by the flooding. In other words, the effect a hurricane can have on some species is incredibly complicated, and variable, according to the specific conditions of that storm.
The sediment that travels within all that freshwater can be a problem as well.
“For animals that can’t go anywhere, like oyster reefs, there’s potential in the in-shore areas that they could get covered by sediment that’s moving down the rivers.”
Too much sediment and the oysters can’t hack it.
With regard to land animals, most just hunker down and wait out the storm, says Roland Kays, a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
In fact, in a study conducted by several of Kays’ students, it was discovered that whitetail deer neither increased nor decreased their activity in the days leading up to a large storm. However, on the day of, the animals stayed put.
Kays says he still has a number of camera traps out in the area and hopes to be able to add new information to the story after this particular storm. What’s more, he says people can use the Animal Tracker app to watch what several of the area’s wild, GPS-tagged animals do during Hurricane Florence in real time.
Viewers can choose between a bald eagle in Norfolk, Virginia, a great blue heron in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a bald eagle in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The last eagle, Freedom, is the most likely to do something interesting as he has been flying all over the east coast,” says Kays.
But of all the animals that could be impacted by Hurricane Florence, Eggleston says he’s worried about one more than the rest.
“Homo sapiens,” he says. “That’s the main one right now.”