What do animals do when hurricanes approach?
From some of the world's fiercest predators to smaller creatures, natural instincts come into play for animal species to avoid the wrath of deadly storms.
A Sand Tiger Shark swims in its aquarium at the Zoo-Aquarium in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010. Tiger sharks are just one of many shark species that can sense barometric pressure drops before a hurricane, swimming to deeper waters to escape the storm. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
People around the world have acquired knowledge from generations of deadly hurricanes, learning how to adapt and survive when fearsome winds and torrential downpours are in the area. Residents in the United States and beyond are privy to information like severe weather alerts, gaining precious preparation time to evacuate their homes or take safe shelter.
In contrast, fellow ecosystem inhabitants must rely on their natural instincts when a hurricane strikes. From some of the world’s most feared predators to smaller creatures of the animal kingdom, species have adapted in their own ways, absent of real-time information or alerts.
Animals who dwell under the surface are used to the water but are still wary of a hurricane’s potential impacts, finding ways to escape a hurricane’s wrath. In 2021, researchers from the University of Miami tackled marine life, including sharks, and their natural defenses that arise when a hurricane is en route. The research stated that sharks and other marine life are sensitive to barometric pressure, which drops when a major storm such as a hurricane arrives. Sharks, in particular, can feel the change in pressure and will swim to deeper waters where they feel more comfortable.
A bull shark gets up close to inspect divers during an eco tourism shark dive off of Jupiter, Florida on May 5, 2022. Bull sharks, like other species of shark, have natural instincts that keep them clear of deadly hurricanes. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
“From two weeks out of a hurricane, sharks can actually detect the change and start heading for deeper water,” University of Miami Research Associate Professor Dr. Neil Hammerschlag told Popular Science. This detection was needed when the catastrophic Hurricane Ian landed in Florida last September, as sharks in the area sensed that air pressure in the area was decreasing before Ian’s landfall, giving the predator a chance to flee before mandatory evacuation orders were made.
The Miami researchers analyzed movement from tiger sharks, bull sharks, nurse sharks and great hammerheads during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017, finding that most of the observed sharks evacuated shallow waters when Hurricane Irma impacted Miami. The exception was larger tiger sharks, which remained in dangerously shallow water in the Bahamas when Matthew hit.
Another round of research in 2019, led by marine scientist Grace Casselberry, further proved sharks’ natural instinct to flee for more comfortable spots in the ocean. Casselberry and her colleagues tracked a variety of sharks in the U.S. Virgin Islands during Hurricane Maria in 2017, recording how they behaved when the storm arrived. The four different species of shark observed (tiger, lemon, nurse and Caribbean reef sharks) all moved to deeper waters during the Category 5 storm.
A Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) is seen at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve coral reef in the outskirts of San Pedro village, in Ambergris Cay, Belize, on June 7, 2018. Nurse sharks are just one of many shark species with natural instincts to keep them away from hurricanes. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)
“When these big storms come through, you have a lot of wind, a lot of waves — a real chaotic environment,” Casselberry told Hakai Magazine. “We think they’re moving out to these deeper areas to take shelter from the storm.”
Bradley Strickland, a postdoctoral researcher at William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, added that sharks can use their sensitive inner ears to detect a storm’s pressure changes, and the animal can use its quick swimming abilities to escape a storm’s wrath. “Aquatic animals respond to storms for the same reason we do — to avoid injury, death, and the destruction from hurricanes,” Strickland told Popular Science.
While aquatic animals can make quick evasive moves away from hurricanes under the surface, more airborne creatures such as birds must alter their entire life’s schedule to account for the storms. Like sharks, birds are also sensitive to barometric pressure and can also use infrasound cues to sense when trouble is on its way, the Journal of Experimental Biology reported.
Birds in the path of a hurricane, if they choose to leave, adjust behaviors based on personal life histories and the time of the year. The white-throated sparrow, for example, may migrate sooner than usual if a storm is approaching, moving up an autumn migration date in response to falling barometric pressure.
The white-throated sparrow is just one of many birds that alter their migration patterns in order to avoid a hurricane (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Unlike sharks, however, more birds tend to fly right into the action. Research of a whimbrel bird’s movements in 2011 showed that the bird flew into the danger zone of the devastating Hurricane Irene during its autumn migration from Canada to South America. The same bird flew around the edge of Tropical Storm Colin the prior year. Another bird researchers followed in 2011 flew into Tropical Storm Gert off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, surviving strong winds for 27 straight hours while flying at just 7 mph.
Birds have also been witnessed taking shelter in the calmest part of hurricanes: the eye. In August of 2020 as Category 4 Hurricane Laura crashed into the Louisiana coastline, radar images detected birds congregating in the eye of the storm.
Birds that choose migration during a hurricane, particularly smaller birds, may have their flight paths altered by the powerful winds. In 2005, a large flock of smaller birds was diverted by the winds of Hurricane Wilma, with the flock forced to relocate to Western Europe. Another flock of birds that were trapped by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 also relocated hundreds of miles from typical migration locations.
“Although storms can have short-term negative impacts on nesting shorebirds and seabirds, storms can often create new nesting habitat … hurricanes and tropical storms may change where shorebirds and seabirds nest in coastal areas, and give them space for the best chance at nesting success,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Center stated.
Non-migratory birds that decide not to fly during storms find a variety of shelters to ride out the event. A popular form of shelter for birds is inside thick bushes or trees, which help reduce wind speed and keep birds dry during downpours. Birds are more immune to winds that would knock other creatures off the trees or bushes since the species has adapted to sleeping while perched with tightly closed feet in order to hold on to solid branches.
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