What happens to wildlife, marine life during and after a hurricane?

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

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When a potentially devastating tropical storm or hurricane threatens to make landfall, most people are aware that they have a decision to make about whether to evacuate to a safer location or not.

In most cases, wildlife and marine life do not have the same opportunity and are forced to fend for themselves as hurricanes wreak havoc on their natural habitats.

“Florida’s fish and wildlife species have experienced natural weather events such as hurricanes for thousands of years and are generally well-adapted for survival," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) public information specialist Michelle Kerr told AccuWeather.

“Wildlife have specific mechanisms to defend themselves against different types of weather, usually without the assistance of people,” Kerr said.

Deer after Irma - AP Photo

A young deer stands on the side of Overseas Highway in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 13, 2017, in Big Pine Key, Florida. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

Sea turtles are a great example of a species that has adapted its nesting strategy to cope with the impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes.

“Nesting female sea turtles deposit several nests throughout the season, essentially hedging their bets to make sure that even if a storm hits during the season, there’s a high probability that at least a few of the nests will succeed,” Kerr said.

Sea turtles in Florida tend to nest in an average of five to seven different spots along the coast each nesting season, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. In 2017, loggerhead sea turtles created more than 4,300 nests in Mote’s 35-mile monitoring area from Longboat Key to Venice, Florida.

Endangered wildlife typically fares the worst during and after a hurricane, said Dr. Nikhil Advani, the World Wildlife Fund’s lead specialist for the organization’s work on climate, communities and wildlife.

“There are the species that can’t do anything about it,” Advani said. “If you look at some of the hurricanes in 2017 in places like Florida, there were parts of it that just got completely wiped out.”

The Florida Keys’ population of endangered Key deer initially appeared to take a hit following 2017’s Category 4 Hurricane Irma.

There are fewer than 1,000 remaining Key deer in the wild, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and their natural habitat was battered by Irma’s strong winds and heavy rainfall.

However, post-Irma Key deer populations were found to be stable, according to a report from the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.

How certain animals respond during and after a hurricane depends on the species, Advani said.

“It causes such widespread destruction that, for a lot of animals, they’ve potentially lost their shelter or nesting sites,” he said. “They potentially lose their food sources, as well.”

There are some of the more opportunistic species, like raccoons, that manage to do well in a post-hurricane environment, Advani added.

It’s not only animals on land that face potential impacts from these storms. Marine species that aren’t perhaps as resilient as sea turtles, for example, can also suffer.

“Manatees can become trapped in certain bodies of water during and after a storm,” Kerr said. “If the tide rises, manatees might have access to locations that they might not be able to access normally, like canals and retention ponds.” Some manatees stranded by storms may need immediate medical attention, she added.

Some dolphins and manatees have been blown ashore by a major's storm's powerful winds, according to the National Wildlife Federation blog.

Corals can also be affected by larger waves generated during a hurricane, which can carry debris and sand that damage corals, according to Advani.

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“Post-hurricane, you then have all these nutrients and sediments being washed into the ocean, which causes even more problems for the coral,” Advani said. “The nutrients can lead to increased growth of algae that can cover the coral reefs entirely.”

On land, certain types of wildlife might be seen more frequently in primarily human-inhabited areas. Bears, for example, might wander into a backyard in search of food after a storm, Kerr said.

Alligators and snakes might also be more easily spotted in flooded areas. The FWC encourages people nearby to give them space and not to disturb them.

In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, fire ants were seen clinging to one another in tight, floating red masses in floodwaters. “It’s best to avoid flooded conditions if ants are suspected to be in an area and avoid any floating balls of ants in general,” Kerr advised.

“We want to make sure people are taking the proper precautions around wildlife as hurricanes come and go,” she said.

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