SEPTEMBER 18, 2019
How can birds that weigh less than a AA battery survive the immense power of Atlantic hurricanes? A new study in Ecology Letters finds that these coastal birds survive because their populations can absorb impacts and recover quickly from hurricanes—even storms many times larger than anything previously observed.
"Coastal birds are often held up as symbols of vulnerability to hurricanes and oil spills, but many populations can be quite resilient to big disturbances," explains lead author Dr. Christopher Field, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). "The impacts of hurricanes, in terms of populations rather than individual birds, tend to be surprisingly small compared to the other threats that are causing these species to decline."
Field and colleagues from five other universities studied the resilience of four species of coastal birds, including the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow. The researchers developed simulations that allowed them to explore how disturbances like hurricanes would affect the birds' populations over time. They started with models that project population sizes into the future based on the species' birth and death rates. The research team then subjected these populations to simulated hurricanes that killed a certain number of birds. Because they were using computational simulations, the researchers were able to look at the full range of potential hurricane sizes—from storms that caused no bird deaths to storms that were more severe than anything ever observed.