This year’s Atlantic Basin hurricane season has already surpassed all predictions in both the number and intensity of storms, and we have, at this writing, six weeks left in the season for more storms to arise! There have been (as of October 19) fifteen named storms and ten hurricanes. Five of these hurricanes have been “major” (Category 3 or above) (Harvey (a 4), Irma (5), Jose (4), Lee (3) and Maria (5)). Three of these five major storms had extensive contact with land masses and have done considerable damage to both human habitations and natural ecosystems. An index that measures the number, the strength and also the duration of a season’s storms is called the “Accumulated Cyclone Energy” (ACE) Index. Based on this index, 2017 is already the eighth most intense hurricane season of all time!
Many animals were affected by Harvey, Irma and Maria. Cows, horses, chickens, goats, dogs and cats all suffered grievously from the effects of these storms and relied on their humans to help them survive. Zoo animals had to be sheltered in place or removed to safer, inland sites. Dolphins in Cuba were removed from their dolphinarium on Cayo Guillermo and helicoptered away from the path of Irma. The Humane Society has set up a special fund to help domesticated animals that have been displaced by these storms.
Wild animals also were affected by these hurricanes. Some large, strong flying birds were able to fly out ahead of the storms, but most species had to shelter in place and ride out the wind, rain, and flooding.
Hurricane Harvey was a slow moving, monster of a storm. After it hit the Texas Gulf coast, it inched its way along dumping a year’s worth of rain on some areas around Houston. The flooding was incredible and the effects will be felt for many years. On a beach near Texas City, Texas the storm pushed a seldom seen sea creature onto the sand. The three foot, toothed serpent was a fangtooth sea eel (Aplatophis chauliodus) a bottom dwelling predator that is normally found burrowed in the sediment at depths of 100 to 300 feet. The energy of the storm must have dislodged it and flung it up on to the shore. I could not find a free use photo of the sea eel and so include this LINK to an article (with pictures!) about it.
Harvey also forced many shore birds far inland. Sooty terns, magnificent frigate birds, royal terms, Caspian terns, least terns and Sabine’s gulls were pushed up to 200 miles into the Texas Hill Country. Many showed up around the lakes near Austin giving central Texas bird watchers a great chance to expand their life lists!
West of Houston is the Atwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. The wild population of these endangered birds only numbered 42 individuals before the storm. After Harvey only 5 hens survived. The refuge also houses a population of bob-white quail that were decimated by the torrential rains and flooding. In nearby coastal refuges thousands of dead birds were reported (especially pelicans, terns and gulls). Song birds were also assumed to have been killed in large numbers, although their small carcasses were very difficult to observe or recover.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is just north of Rockport, Texas (the site of Harvey’s first landfall). It is a large, vital over-wintering reserve for a number of migratory bird species including the endangered whooping crane. Harvey pushed tons of saltwater into the refuge’s freshwater ponds and piled up massive quantities of man-made materials all over the refuge. Fortunately, the whooping cranes had not yet arrived when Harvey hit although their over-wintering habitat is severely damaged.
An animal that seems to have thrived in the post-hurricane floods in Texas was the exotic, invasive, and extremely destructive, fire ant. Reports described floating masses of fire ants held together by their intertwined legs, bobbing along in the flood waters around Houston. These masses dispersed when they reached dry land and inflicted their severe stings on anyone who came in contact with them.
Hurricane Irma was a fast moving, powerful wind and rain storm. It generated 185 mph winds and tore across several Caribbean islands, the Florida Keys, and up the entire state of Florida. Strong flying, tropical birds, as we saw in Harvey, were scattered out ahead of the storm and were seen as far north as Kentucky. Upland habitats of southeastern Florida and the Keys were defoliated by the wind. There will be, then, no food or shelter for the flocks of migrant species that will be following the Atlantic Flyway this fall and winter. The Everglade snail kite (an endangered raptor) had all 44 of its nests around Lake Okeechobee destroyed by Irma. On the island of Barbuda, amazingly, many of the near-threatened Barbuda warblers survived the destruction of their dry shrubland habitat. Magnificent frigate birds, though, that nest in large numbers on Barbuda were decimated by the storm. The endangered Key deer were able to find shelter and high ground as Irma struck and were reported on Big Pine Key a few days after the storm.
Sea turtles were severely impacted by Irma. Hundreds of young, endangered loggerhead and green turtles were pushed onto shore by the storm where they were rescued by human volunteers. Nests, though, were washed away by the extensive beach and dune erosion of Irma. On beaches south of Cape Canaveral 90% of the loggerhead turtle nests were destroyed. Green sea turtles were nesting in record numbers all along the Florida coast, and huge numbers of these nests were also lost.
One Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokesman talked about bears and racoons actually thriving in post-impact ecosystems of Irma. Increased shelter (downed trees) and food (carcasses and scattered human food debris) will actually benefit these two hardy and omnivorous species.
Hurricane Maria was also a fast moving wind and storm event. Winds in Maria reached 160 mph, and it hit the island of Puerto Rico head-on. One site that is representative of the extensive destruction all across the island is the El Yunque Rain Forest. El Yunque is the only rain forest in the U. S. Forest System. It is the site of rare and unique trees, and numerous and endangered birds and amphibians. The entire rain forest was shredded by the winds of Maria destroying the forest’s ability to shelter and feed its numerous animal species. One inhabitant of El Yunque is the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. In 1989 after Hurricane Hugo there were only 22 of these parrots left. Careful conservation of these survivors and established breeding programs (both captive and wild) have brought the numbers of these parrots up to 500 individuals. Many wild parrots died due to Maria, but it is hoped that there are sufficient captive birds to re-establish a viable population.
Ecologists stress that forests like El Yunque in Puerto Rico and animals like the Puerto Rican parrot and the sea turtles we have discussed have evolved in environments where hurricanes regularly occur. The long-term impact of these hurricanes, as long as they do not ravage a site too frequently, may, in fact, be beneficial to the overall health and vigor of these ecosystems and species. Climate change models, though, predict both increased intensity and increased frequency of these major hurricanes. The increased frequency, in particular, could be devastating to all of these sites and organisms.