Weeks before we even think about sandbagging or boarding up windows to prevent hurricane damage, an underwater evacuation begins. Sharks, sea snakes and other wildlife prepare to escape being trapped or injured when massive storms come ashore.
Much of Florida’s aquatic life, including species as diverse as manatees and alligators, know what to do in a storm like Hurricane Ian. After all, these native animals have had millions more years of practice than we have. But those ancient abilities will only become more useful as the hurricanes get more intense. of climate change.
“Aquatic animals respond to storms for the same reason we do: to avoid injuries, deaths, and destruction from hurricanes,” says Bradley Strickland, a postdoctoral researcher studying aquatic animal responses to hurricanes and climate change at the Virginia Institute of William and Mary. Marine Science. Still, some animals are better equipped to weather or evade storms than others. And the sharks are among the best.
[Related: Sharks are learning to love coastal cities]
Even when a hurricane is far on the horizon, the atmosphere changes: the barometric pressure drops. “Within two weeks of a hurricane, sharks can detect the change and start heading to deeper water,” says Neil Hammerschlag, director of the shark research and conservation program at the University of Miami. The air around Hurricane Ian is gone been declining under pressure as the storm strengthens, and the sharks can sense that, allowing them to flee long before Florida’s human residents receive mandatory evacuation orders.
“Similar to the way we use weather technologies and observations of changing wind and temperature ahead of a storm, aquatic animals have ways of detecting the approach of a storm,” says Strickland. Sharks use their sensitive inner ears to detect pressure changes from an approaching storm, he adds. And, due to their incredible swimming abilities (some can swim up to 45 miles per hour), they can quickly escape approaching storms, that is, if they choose to.
Smaller shark species and juveniles choose to escape to deeper waters to avoid turbulence near the shoreline. For them, “staying in shallow water would be like a shark tornado,” says Hammerschlag, because hurricanes can push currents. up to 300 feet below the ocean surface. Smaller sharks that remain in the shallows are at risk of being pulled inland.
However, other larger predators, such as tiger sharks that grow up to 14 feet and 1,400 poundsthey see hurricanes as an opportunity for the best smorgasbord of the sea. By tracking tiger sharks during and after Hurricane IrmaHammerschlag noted that “not only did they not escape, but they may have taken advantage of things that were dying, whether it was birds that were washed into the water or fish and invertebrates that collided with the debris.” After the storm, he adds, there were “increased numbers of tiger sharks in the area for about two weeks.”
For aquatic and semi-aquatic animals that cannot weather the storm or swim out of reach, finding shelter may be the best option for survival. “Sea snakes will seek refuge in volcanic rocks to avoid typhoons,” says Strickland. “Alligators are likely to duck down to weather a storm by finding easy places to get in and out,” he adds. Some smaller alligators can be swept away by hurricanes; others might change their eating patterns entirely to stay safe.
Other species may be less lucky. The graceful manatee, for example, has found itself in particularly difficult situations after a hurricane. Although weight wise they are comparable to a tiger shark, speed wise they are definitely not, cruising up to 15mph only if really pushed. And as much as they try to protect themselves before a storm, this doesn’t always work for them. Instead, they can be washed out of coastal waters by floods. Others, curious to explore new streams, have found themselves trapped in smaller ponds, forestsor even by roads after the storm swims through flooded areas. However, hurricanes rank low in the dangers for manatees, a key threatened species in Florida that is often endangered by aquatic bikes.
Even if Hurricane Ian is the first major storm a Florida animal will experience, the odds are good that it will take some sort of action. “We see animals evacuating the places they call home before a big storm even though, in some cases, they have never experienced a hurricane in their lives,” says Strickland. “This shows how innate it is to protect yourself from a storm by preparing or fleeing instead of just waiting.”