Can animals smell hurricanes? Sharks are an example.

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Weeks before we even thought about getting sandbags or closing the windows to avoid hurricane damage, an underwater evacuation begins. Sharks, sea snakes and other wildlife will make preparations to escape and become trapped or injured when massive storms approach a coast.

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 of years of practice longer than us. But these age-old skills 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 injury, death and destruction from hurricanes,” says Bradley Strickland, a postdoctoral researcher who studies aquatic animal response to hurricanes and climate change. at William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Maritime Science. Yet some animals are better equipped to weather or escape storms than others. And sharks are some of 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. “As early as two weeks after a hurricane, sharks can actually sense the change and start heading for deeper waters,” says Neil Hammerschlag, director of the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Program. The air around Hurricane Ian has gradually decreases under pressure as the storm strengthens, and the sharks can sense it, allowing them to flee long before Florida’s human residents receive mandatory evacuation orders.

“Similar to how we use weather technology and observations of wind and temperature patterns before a storm, aquatic animals have ways of detecting when a storm is approaching,” Strickland says. Sharks use their sensitive inner ears to detect changes in pressure from a storm, he adds. And, due to their incredible swimming abilities (some can swim up to 45 miles per hour), they can quickly escape incoming storms, that is, if they choose.

Smaller shark species and juveniles choose to escape to deeper water to avoid turbulence near the shore. For them, “staying in shallow water would be like a shark tornado,” Hammerschlag says, because hurricanes can push currents up to 300 feet below the ocean surface. For smaller sharks that remain in shallow waters, they risk being driven inland.

Yet other top predators, such as the growing tiger sharks up to 14 feet and 1,400 poundsview hurricanes as an opportunity for the ultimate marine smorgasbord. Tracking Tiger Sharks During and After Hurricane Irma, Hammerschlag remarked that “not only did they not run away, but they may have taken advantage of things that were dying, either birds that were swept away in the water, or fish and invertebrates that collided with debris. After the storm, he adds, there were “higher numbers of tiger sharks in the area for about two weeks.”

For aquatic and semi-aquatic animals that can’t weather the storm or swim out of reach, finding shelter may be the best option for survival. “Sea snakes will seek shelter in volcanic rocks to avoid typhoons,” Strickland says. “Alligators likely take shelter to weather a storm by finding it easy to get in and out of places,” he adds. Some smaller alligators can be swept away by hurricanes; others might completely change their foraging habits to stay safe.

Other species might be less fortunate. The graceful manatee, for example, was found in particularly difficult situations after the hurricane. While in terms of weight they’re comparable to a tiger shark, in terms of speed they certainly aren’t, cruising up to 15mph only if they really push it. And if they try to hide before a storm, they don’t always succeed. Instead, they can be swept away from coastal waters by flooding. Others, curious to explore new waterways, were found stuck in smaller ponds, forestsor even by the roads after swimming after the storm in flooded areas. Yet hurricanes are at the bottom of the danger rankings for manatees, a keystone endangered species in Florida often put at risk by personal watercraft.

Even though Hurricane Ian is the first major storm a Florida animal will experience, chances are they will take action. “We see animals evacuating places they call home before a major storm even though in some cases they’ve never experienced a hurricane in their lifetime,” Strickland said. “It shows how innate it is to protect yourself from a storm by preparing or fleeing rather than just waiting.”

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