Hurricane Ian Florida Wildlife Survival

How Florida’s wildlife fared after Hurricane Ian

Southwest Florida is a different place than it was six weeks ago when Hurricane Ian struck.

The lush Sanibel Island has turned brown, with its trees being felled by storms or submerged in salt water. Cape Coral, a neatly planned community, is still digging its way out of the rubble.

Ian caused the deaths of 130 people and forced thousands more to flee. As residents rebuild, there are still questions about the future of these critically endangered native species.

Breanna Frankel (rehabilitation manager, CROW Clinic), a Sanibel wildlife hospital, said that wildlife has evolved with natural disasters. She explained that they know when they are coming. “It’s all the extra things that hurricane caused that I think we are starting to see more problems.”

Wildlife experts will need to take months or even years to assess the extent of the damage. However, what they have seen over the past few weeks shows what the future holds for the state’s native wildlife.

Frankel stated that “so many habitats are slowly going to shock.” It remains to be seen if our ecosystem can overcome this.

Saltwater intrusions are fought by turtles and gators

Southwest Florida is home to a unique range of ecosystems that contain critically important keystone species. These include mangrove forests and wetlands, beaches off of the Gulf of Mexico, and hammocks.

They are the engine of local ecosystems. Their habitats run because of them. Keystone species in Florida include gopher tortoises (whose burrows shelter more than 350 species) and alligators (who dig holes during dry seasons for freshwater that turtles use and wading birds also). Gator’s nesting habits make them excellent security guards for eggs of other species. The reptiles protect their nests fiercely and keep coyotes (and raccoons) away.

However, water imbalances can be disruptive. Gopher tortoises, which are terrestrial creatures, don’t spend much time in the water. They are also not good swimmers. Although they can hold their breath when their burrows become flooded, Hurricane Ian brought debris and obstructions into their homes. Although they can tolerate salt water for short time, alligators are used to living in freshwater habitats and hunting, breeding, and maintaining their health.

Chris Lechowicz (herpetologist, director of wildlife management and habitat management at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, SCCF), stated that saltwater has overtaken some of Sanibel’s freshwater sources. He took readings from the Sanibel River which is a significant freshwater habitat for many turtle species. The salinity levels were up at some locations from 0 grams per kilogram or 0 parts per thousand to 24 ppt. This was just a few grams from salt water classification.

Lechowicz stated that the freshwater system was “almost seawater.” “This is going to change a lot the diversity in that region.”

Saltwater can also be harmful to native tree species. Many of them were already dead from strong winds. However, the survivors are often unable to bear salty soil. Lechowicz stated that this will dramatically alter the ecosystems of Sanibel.

He stated that there would be a decrease in trees. “A lot of trees were felled, but those that remain may be affected by saltwater intrusion from the islands.”

Burrowing Owls and Other Species are stopped by debris

The debris from the homes that were damaged still litters parts of Southwest Florida that were most affected by Ian, Sanibel, and Cape Coral being two examples. Lechowicz, who is accustomed to observing a very rare Florida Mud Turtle population in a small island wetland, has not been able to reach the area for several weeks.

Numerous homes were destroyed, especially those that were near the water. Their sliding glass doors and windows were frequently broken when their homes were flooded. The water also pushed out its contents. He said that many of these items ended up in wildlife conservation zones.

Lechowicz stated that some items in homes may contain toxic elements.

Pascha Donaldson, an ex-leader of Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife has walked across

the city clearing out the trash from the homes of burrowing Owls. Donaldson discovered many holes that were completely covered by the tiny owls, which are a threatened species in Florida.

She said that the owls would return if they weren’t killed or blown away. “If the city doesn’t clear out the burrow, the birds won’t return – they can’t dig through it.”

Tire tracks have been found on top burrows, and whole boats have been discovered on top of lots that are dedicated to owls. She said that she has seen owls in unusual places, such as on her front porch. However, it is still rare to see them.

She said that owls behave just like other birds. “Unless they get caught in the wind or hit a building, they are pretty smart to save feathers.”

She won’t be conducting the annual population count until June because that is the burrowing owl baby season. In the meantime, she will continue to clean out burrows and encourage neighbors to dig burrows on their front lawns to call the owls home.

She said, “I hope when I clean them up, I’ll be able to see more of them.” “I suppose time will tell.”

According to Dr. Robin Bast of CROW Clinic, wildlife rescuers had “bigger concerns” in the weeks after the hurricane. He said that animals who couldn’t fly or climb out of danger’s way were the biggest concern. Since the storm, there has been an increase in turtle patients at the clinic. These animals, while seeking water, are being more frequently hit by cars. Squirrels have also been taken from their trees and brought to the clinic.

It’s too soon to know if or how severely the species suffered. However, SCCF has identified some indicators of habitat health. Before Hurricane Ian, there were 17 nests of sea turtles on the island. SCCF teams only found one nest in the weeks that followed Hurricane Ian. The rest were likely washed away by the sea,

Sanibel homeowners once considered marsh rabbits a nuisance for their habit of eating in their yards. But they have rarely seen them. Lechowicz stated that the American alligator was the most well-known predator in the state, but was not found anywhere after the hurricane.

He said that alligators can tolerate salt water for short periods. “But they will eventually need fresh water. It would be fascinating to learn how alligators survived.

Finding hope after a hurricane

The existing threats to native species’ survival have only been made worse by the hurricane. Habitat loss is threatening almost every Florida keystone species, including gopher tortoises and burrowing Owls. As Florida grows at an almost exponential rate, so does the need to protect critical habitats.

Florida’s native wildlife is often referred to as “sentinel species”, meaning that they bear the brunt of environmental impacts before their human counterparts. If hurricanes of the magnitude of Ian, a Category 4, become the norm, there will not be as many opportunities for animal care and clean-up.

Lechowicz said, “With these hurricanes, you can’t underestimate it – it can change quickly.” He was referring to the fact Ian changed its course from Tampa to Southwest Florida just before it made landfall. It takes a lot of effort to prepare for a hurricane.

Although they cannot stop a hurricane from hitting Florida, Florida wildlife rescues can learn from Ian to increase the chances of survival. They certainly learned a lot. CROW had some interns and vets in Fort Myers, and they were there to help neonatal patients who needed 24-hour care. Frankel filled her garage with birds of prey that had been kept in the ICU of the clinic – red-shouldered Hawks, osprey, and one ornery-horned Owl.

Frankel enlisted the help of her family and friends to care for the critically ill birds when the power was cut. According to Dr. Laura Kellow (CROW veterinarian), interns did jump jacks and squats using cans of water and food in their clothing to heat them.

Some species have started to reemerge slowly and cautiously in the weeks since Ian. An SCCF employee saw a single red-bellied turtle, a turtle with a grumpy disposition trying to cross the road. The beaches are populated by coastal birds such as terns and plovers. CROW continues to care for and release animals such as burrowing owls and seagulls.

SCCF and other organizations are asking the public to send photos and stories of wildlife they have seen while the rescue teams track their recovery. Although it’s impossible to predict the fate of all Florida’s beloved animals, hints of hope are beginning to emerge during the recovery process.

Bast stated that “many of us lost our homes or vehicles, but still we continue to help wildlife victims and each other,” Bast added.

Although animals are designed to withstand natural disasters, they’re not built to survive in habitats that have been destroyed by poor water quality. Since Ian struck, many species, including burrowing owls, American alligators, and gopher tortoises have been lost or damaged. Since the storm, some of these animals have not been seen.

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