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How wildlife survives hurricanes and other natural disasters

In May 2019, Cyclone Idai, one of nature’s most formidable forces, unleashed its fury on Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. This event set the stage for a fascinating study, merging the unstoppable force of natural disasters with cutting-edge wildlife research technology.

An international team of researchers, spearheaded by Princeton University, documented the cyclone’s impact in unprecedented detail, providing new insights into how large-mammal communities respond to natural disasters.

Unmatched technological arena

Gorongosa National Park, renowned for its technological sophistication, was equipped with an extensive network of trail cameras, GPS collars, and other instruments.

This setup, as Hallie Brown, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Environmental Biology, noted, offered an “unprecedented opportunity” to observe the cyclone’s effects in real-time.

The resulting study was authored by Brown and her colleagues, including Robert Pringle, an EEB professor, and Ryan Long, an associate professor of wildlife sciences at the University of Idaho.

“This is the first study that has ever been able to track the real-time responses of a large-mammal community to a natural disaster,” said Pringle.

Wildlife in the midst of a natural disaster

The researchers meticulously observed the animal behavior before, during, and after Cyclone Idai. Brown recollects the harrowing experience.

“We watched the waters rise,” Brown recalled. “We watched the animals’ reactions in the hours, days, weeks after the cyclone: how some of them escaped the floodwaters, and some of them didn’t. Our team used the data we had from before, during and after the storm to create, not just a description of this one event, but a broader set of expectations, so managers can better anticipate the effects of increasingly severe weather events.” 

Their observations revealed that animal size was a critical survival factor. Smaller species like oribi and reedbuck suffered significant losses, while larger herbivores like nyala, kudu, sable, and elephants recorded no fatalities.

When cyclones and wildlife collide

The survival strategies of these animals were diverse. Bushbucks, for example, sought refuge on termite mounds, using these natural hillocks as islands amid the flood. GPS data showed their desperate attempts to find higher ground, emphasizing the importance of topography in such natural disasters.

In contrast, smaller animals not only struggled to escape the rising waters but also faced post-storm nutritional challenges, as the flood destroyed much of the low-lying vegetation they depended on.

Interestingly, this study mirrors findings from previous hurricane impact research on island populations, like lizards and spiders in the Bahamas, highlighting consistent survival patterns across different species and ecosystems.

The research team advises wildlife managers to prioritize the evacuation of smaller and ecologically vulnerable species before storms and provide supplemental feeding post-disaster to mitigate the effects of lost vegetation.

Carnivores in Gorongosa, such as wild dogs, leopards, and lions, fared well during the cyclone. Their prey were concentrated in upland areas, simplifying hunting. Remarkably, lions’ primary prey, warthogs, remained largely unaffected, staying in uplands for several months post-cyclone.

Power of collaboration

Hallie Brown lauds the collaborative nature of this study, which brought together experts from various fields like hydrology and large animal ecology. This multidisciplinary approach was key to understanding the complex interactions between the cyclone’s impact and the park’s wildlife.

In summary, Cyclone Idai’s sweep through Gorongosa National Park offered a rare glimpse into how wildlife responds to natural disasters.

This study not only underscores the resilience of nature but also the importance of technological advancements and collaborative research in understanding and mitigating the effects of such catastrophic events.

The insights gained are invaluable for wildlife management and conservation strategies in the face of increasingly severe weather patterns.

The full study was published in the journal Nature.

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