Nav: Home

Coastal birds can weather the storm, but not the sea

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.

The researchers found that the four coastal species were able to absorb the impacts of storms across a wide range in severity. For example, the study found that a storm could cause mortality for a third of Saltmarsh Sparrows and Clapper Rails in one year, and it would still be unlikely that their populations would deviate significantly from their trajectories over time.

Resilience can be defined in many ways, so Field and colleagues borrowed concepts from classical ecology and applied them to bird populations. They used these concepts to better understand the risk that these species could face from storms that are strengthening because of climate change. The research team looked not only at the ability of populations to absorb impacts, but also the birds' ability to recover over time after large disturbances. Two of the species in the study, Saltmarsh Sparrows and Clapper Rails, are declining, largely from increased coastal flooding caused by higher sea levels. The researchers found that populations were often able to recover from large storms within 20 years, even when populations continued to decline from other threats, such as regular flooding.

If coastal birds are resilient to hurricanes, does that mean they will be resilient to climate change? "It's tempting to focus on dramatic events like hurricanes, especially as they get stronger from climate change," Field says. "But less visible threats like sea-level rise and increased coastal flooding are here to stay, and they are they are going to continue to drive coastal birds, like Saltmarsh Sparrows, toward extinction."

Dr. Chris Elphick, a coauthor on the study from the University of Connecticut, suggests that there are lessons here for people too. "After a big event like a hurricane, we often rush to rebuild and improve coastal resilience without thinking as much as we perhaps should about the longer term chronic changes in the system. Obviously, we need to respond to the damage done, but addressing the gradual, less noticeable changes, may be just as important to coastal communities in the long run."
-end-
This research was funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), National Science Foundation, and Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Birds.

University of Connecticut

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.