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The Perils — And Unexpected Benefits — Animals Caught In Storms Experience

A dog stands in floodwaters from the Waccamaw River caused by Hurricane Florence in Bucksport, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
A dog stands in floodwaters from the Waccamaw River caused by Hurricane Florence in Bucksport, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Massive storms can disrupt travel plans, destroy communities and hamper daily routines.

Fortunately, sophisticated weather forecasting systems can oftentimes buy humans time to prepare or evacuate when a dangerous storm is approaching.

But what about animals?

Steven Rinella, host of the Netflix show “MeatEater,” says certain animals can sense and avoid unfavorable weather conditions. Take fish, for example, he says. Their sensitivity to barometric pressure can help them swim away before a storm hits.

During Hurricane Dorian, people in the Outer Banks in North Carolina noticed wild horses moving to higher ground and gathering in clusters before the storm.

“One of the things the horses will do is they’ll gather up in groups, maybe to stabilize one another, and they’ll face their rumps into the wind,” he says.

Some species “just don’t care” about weather conditions, he says. When Hurricane Irma came 13 miles away from a deer study area in 2017, all 60 deer wearing GPS collars survived without changing their normal routine, Rinella says.

“The day that it made landfall, they acted just like they always act,” he says, “and they just went about their business like nothing was going on.”

Interview Highlights

On blacktip sharks steering clear of Hurricane Gabriel

“There were some studies that [researchers] worked on in Florida where they happened to have some sharks that were wearing the shark equivalent of a radio collar. Ahead of Hurricane Gabriel in 2001, they had 14 blacktip sharks that were wearing transmitters and all 14 of them moved out to deep water off the coast of Florida ahead of Hurricane Gabriel.”

On whether animals can sense the barometric pressure dropping and know they have to move

“That’s the idea that most people have. And it seems like fish especially [are] in tune to it. Fish have a thing called the lateral line where they can really sense pressure and can detect pressure changes that could be movement in the water near them, but other things as well. And some fish seem to become active and like to feed when there is a high-pressure system. [For] other fish, a high-pressure system might send them off. [Barometric pressure is] usually something that we, with our instrumentation, can monitor and notice that we have a change in barometric pressure ahead of a storm. If it’s not that, it’s something that we don’t yet understand about what it could be that they’re picking up on and looking at.

“… There are certain species that wind up being great winners from storms. There had always been Burmese pythons in the Everglades, maybe going back to the ‘70s, but that number jumped tremendously after some hurricanes destroyed some captive wildlife facilities and freed Burmese pythons, maybe enough of them to hit a sort of critical mass and allow Burmese pythons to really take hold in the Everglades.”

On animals being picked up and moved by waterspouts, such as frogs that don’t usually fly but end up taking flight in a storm

“Yeah, that does happen. It doesn’t happen to the degree to which we sort of as a society would like to dream of it happening — if you have ever seen the movie “Magnolia,” which ends with this fantastic storm of bullfrogs. But there are cases. I mean, even in 1877, The New York Times reported on eight alligators, about 12 inches long, being dumped within 200 yards near the Savannah River. So I think, on one hand, you could look and a storm can come and one can feel empathy and pity in the short term for individual animals that could suffer some kind of catastrophe and die in mass numbers. But there’s this little bit of solace that can be found in the idea that these big storms and these events are things that also distribute animals in some way, allowing species to move beyond their geographic range and discover new places and evolve into new, beautiful things down the road. From a global sort of wildlife perspective, it’s a bittersweet occurrence when we have massive weather events.”

On climate change’s effect on animals

“Global climate change, even if it does result in some distribution of species around, life is not able to evolve quickly enough to be commensurate with the destruction that we would see in cases of the Arctic warming, the oceans acidifying, the oceans warming. Personally, I can’t look to species distribution as being a bright spot in a climate change scenario, but it’s almost taboo to say this, but there will be certain species that win from global climate change. Animals that maybe are restricted in their northern movements because of severe winters and as temperatures change, they’ll become big winners. And some part of us might someday look and celebrate those winners. But it’s hard to find anything that like in a holistic sense seems optimistic or great to look forward to for wildlife in terms of scenarios in which we have more and more severe weather and more changes on our planet.”

On whether humans have enough of an appreciation for the other species

“On the whole as a culture, I would say that we’re suffering from some dissociation with the natural world. We’re increasingly urbanized. I do worry about what that will mean in the future for the conservation movement if in fact people do move away from the natural world and become less interested in preserving it. I think that has implications. But all in all, I find like in my social circles or the people I spend a lot of time with, they tend to be infatuated with animals. And that infatuation will oftentimes lead people to think that they’re actually smarter than we are or more capable or more adaptive and better evolved to cope, but again and again, we’re reminded of places and times where animals just make mistakes. And that’s the interesting thing to think about with animals is that they can hit a certain age — different species like a deer can hit 20 years of age — but they oftentimes make a mistake way before that happens and don’t live that long. I think that it’s interesting to start and look at wildlife in that way as things like individuals who are out there attempting to cope with a constantly changing environment and constantly evolving threats.”

Francesca Paris produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

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