The Biological Impact of a Major Hurricane

Lately it seems like there is always another tropical storm just over the horizon, threatening us with death and destruction. Setting aside for a moment the impact on people and property, let’s consider the impact on wildlife on the island.

It’s been over fifteen years since the last major hurricane hit St. Martin, and according to many folks who have been around here since then there is a lot more wildlife on the island now. The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola, also known as the sugarbird or sucrière), which is extremely common on the island today, was rarely seen in the years after Hurricane Luis. Surely the same is true for many other species that are not as noticeable or well-known.

Even though hurricanes are a natural phenomenon that has impacted the Lesser Antilles since long before the arrival of people, habitat destruction has increased their impact on wildlife. Species that may already be struggling to survive in limited, degraded habitats may by wiped out entirely by a hurricane or take much more time to recover. Differing rates of recovery between species could alter the balance of our island’s ecosystem either temporarily or permanently.

A major hurricane is, in some ways, a big biological experiment. It has the potential to reveal a lot about how island ecosystems are impacted by a natural disaster and how they recover. Of course, much of what we could potentially learn is limited by what we already know about the island in its pre-hurricane state. In many ways, we don’t know that much. For example, there are several species of dove (zenaida, Eurasian collared and white-winged) that are similar in size and preferred habitat and probably compete with each other. If we don’t have a good idea of their relative populations today, we won’t really be able to tell if that changes after a hurricane.

On the other hand, even without a great deal of systematically-collected data, we would probably learn more about the impact of a major hurricane than we did last time around. In addition to data collected by the Réserve Naturelle, the Nature Foundation and groups like Environmental Protection in the Caribbean, there are plenty of less formal sources of data. Digital photography and online photo sharing, for example, will give us a much clearer visual picture of the impact of a hurricane next time around. With more dive centers on the island, there are more people familiar with the local marine environment than ever before. Hiking clubs, like St. Martin Trails, not only increase the number of people with firsthand knowledge of the island, but also make it easier to contact those people to collect personal observations.

Overall, the next big hurricane will be something of a missed opportunity to seriously study the biological impact of such a disaster. On the other hand, we’ll surely learn a lot more than we have in the past, so at least that’s a start.

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