Effects of Hurricanes on Coastal Animals

As a hurricane approaches land, everyone braces for its impact—stocking up on food and water, hunkering down in adequate shelter, or even evacuating to higher ground if necessary. But what about the animals that live along the coast? You may not think about the marine life, birds, and coastal species that can be affected. While some marine life that are further out at sea may not be too bothered by the storm, the ones that are closer to the coast can be greatly affected.

Waters

Despite the fact that the marine life further out into the ocean isn’t generally too drastically affected by a hurricane or tropical storm, it’s still a fact that the storms can churn the waters. The lower, cooler waters are often mixed with the warmer surface waters, shaking things up a bit. This is more of a problem when the water reaches the coast, where rain can also cool the temps of the surface waters and make them less salty. Marine life that needs the salt water can be displaced, and fish can swim off course. Violent waves caused by the storm’s high winds can cause destruction below the water’s surface, displacing sand from the seabed and upsetting habitats.

Sometimes, large amounts of fish or other marine life can be washed ashore by the strong winds and waves, and often they are stuck there with no way to get back out to sea. Manatees and dolphins have been known to show up on shore during storms in the past. Think of the way the water swirls as it goes down the bathtub drain, but on a much larger scale; and now, imagine that each section of the bathtub floor is a small ecosystem. It would be very easy for nurseries and schools of fish to be displaced by that kind of motion in the waters—not to mention the strong winds and heavy rain—and no one can really know for sure just how strong a storm will be until it actually hits. The waters in bays and coves can be greatly affected as well when strong waves and torrential rains push salt water further inland. Waters that were formerly fresh can be contaminated by the salt water, disrupting the balance that species need in each of the waters.

Habitats

For the animals in the air, in the water, and on land, storms can displace habitats. You may not think that this is as important as it would be for humans, but sometimes it is worse. When certain species are used to living and eating in a certain area, they may be unable to survive if their habitats are shifted or if their food source is wiped out by the storm. Humans, at least, can generally travel and find more food, receiving aid from people and organizations that are prepared beforehand. Most animals are left on their own to survive and may have a tough time in the aftermath.

Birds

Some birds and mammals that live in trees have it better than ground dwellers; they can at least reach higher areas that may be safer and can avoid the flood waters. However, trees are often downed in the violent winds and birds are forced to keep moving. In the eye of the storm, birds can be trapped or displaced, surrounded by wind and rain with nowhere to go. Birds that live near the shore often flee further inland before the storm hits, sensing the impending chaos and flying away using their survival instincts. But even birds’ habitats can be destroyed or displaced; violent winds can move them far off course, and they may not be able to get back easily or at all.

Beach Wildlife

Marine animals that live right on the coast and spend time both in the water and on land are greatly affected. Crabs and sea turtles can lose their homes with just one or two strong waves; think of the amount of destruction a prolonged storm can cause along the coast. Often during a hurricane, the beach is severely eroded and reshaped, causing problems for the species that live in the sands and dunes on the shore. With the combination of rain and strong waves, areas can be completely flooded and submerged, creating problems for animals as well as the plants in the area and washing sands away when the waters recede. Coral reefs are sometimes destroyed entirely, and it can take many years or even decades for them to recover from the chaos. In turn, the whole ecosystems of reefs are affected and take a long time to bounce back as well.

Positives

Amidst all the destruction and chaos, there are still positives for some species in the aftermath of a hurricane or tropical storm. Plants and trees have a clearer path to spread seeds and grow, and surviving animals have the opportunity to recolonize. Sometimes surviving species travel by default, showing up in remote locations far from their homes. That shows the resilience of many animals and species—they will adapt and overcome, beating the odds to avoid the destruction.

Sharks are one species that is able to avoid the chaos in advance by sensing the change in temperature before the storm hits. They are more easily able to flee and escape the coming storm due to their larger size, so they are less often displaced or washed ashore. Sometimes dolphins can sense the shift and flee as well, although they seem to be less diligent than the shark population. Likely, more animals know that a storm is coming but either have nowhere to go or can’t flee fast enough. Regardless, many species are tough and smart and can escape the storms or rebuild quickly in the aftermath.

While we can never know the full effect of a hurricane or tropical storm on the deep-water marine life, it is pretty clear the effects on the surface animals and those living on the coast and in the air. Scientific research and studies help each year to understand the effects on plant and animal species, and wildlife organizations help to nurture animals back to health in the aftermath. Now if only we could find a way to prevent hurricanes from forming, we could save a lot of plant, animal, and human species from destruction.

The Pegasus Foundation exists to protect and support animal welfare through grants and education, partnering with non-profit organizations to share resources, educate the public, and facilitate communication. For more information, please contact the Pegasus Foundation directly.