Hurricane Ian by NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

We’ve covered a lot of territory over the last several months, looking at the various adaptations plants and animals in Florida have developed to deal with hurricanes. I hope it’s been as enjoyable and informative a journey for you as it has been for me. We’ve seen plants that are able to survive in saturated soil and animals that can use the destruction to further their own reproductive spread. Some organisms just vacate the area until the storm passes and other hunker down and find shelter.

As a conclusion, I’m going to look back at the inquiry that started ‘Winds of Change’ and whether we’re asking the right things about hurricanes and wildlife.

Rethinking the Question

This series began as an effort to answer a question that I heard frequently after Ian hit Southwest Florida: how did the wildlife deal with it? On its own, the question is perfectly reasonable and the answers are as varied as the species it applies to. However, I think there is an unspoken component to the question that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how we perceive the natural world.

Ian was devastating to the human infrastructure here, and so we wonder how other species can deal with such a monumental upheaval. It can seem incredulous to us that plants and animals are able to handle a disruption of this magnitude. The unspoken part of the question is ‘how do they live through this when it can be so deadly for us?’. This thought process indicates a fundamental flaw in our relation to the environment.

To be clear, this is not a criticism of human thinking. Our consciousness has given us tremendous advantages over time, but, as with any adaptation, there are trade-offs. Because our own thoughts are a constant companion, we have difficulty comprehending larger scales and proportions. Time scales larger than a human lifespan can be difficult to grasp, and the difficulty increases with the interval. It is also a challenge to relate to vast numbers of individuals. You can see this in the quote, often misattributed to Stalin, about a single death versus a million (one is a tragedy, the other a statistic). The challenge is that ecology requires thinking in those time and number scales.

Think Bigger

The death toll from Ian is now set at 161. Every single one of those people has a story attached to their life and death. I’ve read about a few. However, on an ecological scale, such an event wouldn’t even register. Looking at one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent memory: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, there were 227,898 fatalities. It was a tragedy of unimaginable scope, and yet it was only about 4 thousandths of one percent of the total human population at the time. The COVID-19 pandemic, which the World Health Organization estimates at just under 7 million deaths worldwide so far, barely registers against a worldwide population of over 7 billion.

Again, I am not trying to minimize these events. Our ability to empathize with others is a key evolutionary strength of the human species. However, it also means we tend to individualize non-human organisms as well, and that can be detrimental to our understanding of their ecology. This is a concept that I have personally struggled with over the years. Our tendency to anthropomorphize animals allows us to relate to them easier, especially when it comes to wildlife conservation. It can be difficult to balance my ‘scientist’ hat with my ‘conservationist’ hat.

Hurricanes and Evolution

For an individual person, hurricanes are a rare event. Since 1851, there have been 1,708 storms of tropical storm intensity in the Atlantic. Of those, 953 reached hurricane force and 330 were major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). Because their path is somewhat unpredictable, many people, even in hurricane prone areas, will not experience one for years at a time. However, it is important to remember that evolution does not work at the individual level. You and I are not evolving (in the biological sense, at least).

The smallest unit that evolution can work on the the population, defined as ‘the total number of individuals of a given biological species found in one place at one time’. The exact geographic extent of a population can vary and often is determined by natural boundaries such as mountains, rivers, or oceans.

It is also important to remember that evolution is not a guided process. There is no ‘goal’ or ‘end point’ or ‘finish line’. That does not mean it is random (though chance is still a factor). In the case of hurricanes, if one hits a population of organisms, only those best adapted for such an event will survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. And, while these storms are rare based on human time scales, over the course of millions of years, species will experience hundreds of thousands of them, allowing for continuing adaptation over time.

So, the conclusion to the unspoken question is relatively simple. Plants and animals are able to handle hurricanes so well because they have been doing it for a long time. Homo sapiens as a species is only about 300,000 years old (fairly young on a geological scale) and didn’t start out in a hurricane area. The vulnerability of our structures is even more understandable. Modern construction is still in its metaphorical infancy.

Sneak Preview

I know that there was a lot of heavy material in this last installment of the series. So, as a treat, I’m going to share what I’ve been working on for the next Nature Stories series, which will debut after a month-long break in articles. Get ready for Nature Stores Mysteries!

The natural world is full of questions. These questions fuel our imagination and drive our desire to learn. Some of them are so tantalizing, they seem more like a detective story than anything else. That is what Nature Stories Mysteries is going to touch on. We’ll explore some of the most fascinating solved (and unsolved) brain teasers of the natural world. Some of them are famous, others more obscure, but each one presents an exciting window into scientists as detectives.