Hurricane Irma: Panthers, manatees may be readier than we are

Florida wildlife, such as manatees, may fare better during Hurricane Irma than a lot of humans. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
Florida wildlife, such as manatees, may fare better during Hurricane Irma than a lot of humans. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published September 9 2017
Updated September 9 2017

As millions of people flee Hurricane Irma, and the rest board up their windows and make plans to ride out the storm, some folks on social media have wondered: What about Florida's wildlife?

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Will Irma hurt the panthers in the swamps and the manatees in the bays and estuaries and the sea turtles out in the ocean?

Biologists say: Stop worrying.

The animals know how to take care of themselves — maybe better than we do.

"Manatees ... are a tropical species and tropical storms are common throughout their range," U.S. Geological Survey scientist Catherine Langtimm wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "They can simply choose a good spot protected from currents to wait the storm out."

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It's possible a handful will die, she said. The storm surge might leave a few high and dry on land, or stuck in landlocked lakes or ponds after the waves recede. But overall, Langtimm said, something like a Red Tide algae bloom is a far greater threat to their population than a hurricane.

The same goes for Florida's official state animal, the panther, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther team leader Darrell Land. Panthers are highly adaptable animals that are likely to survive just fine.

"They will get wet when it rains and they will hunker down when the winds pick up," Land said in email. "Panthers don't build homes, so their rest sites will be rather unaffected. Trees may fall but the odds of a falling tree hitting a panther are slim."

Land, a veteran of the state's panther studies program, added, "I don't recall seeing any change in panther movements during the last 30(-plus) years of tropical systems whacking south Florida."

Sea turtle nests are often wiped out by storm surges — but the turtles are prepared for that, according to Michelle Kerr of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

"Each nesting female sea turtle deposits several nests throughout the season," Kerr explained.

That way the mother hedges her bets, she said, so "even if a storm hits at some point during nesting season, there is a high probability that at least a few of the nests will incubate successfully."

Even in 2004, when a string of four hurricanes clobbered Florida over and over, 42 percent of the state's loggerhead nests hatched, which is about normal, Kerr said.

The big problem, she added, is that sometimes people think they need to somehow help save the nests by digging up the eggs and moving them. Instead, she asked that beachgoers notify state biologists by emailing the marine turtle permit program at MTP@MyFWC.com.

Birds should be fine as well — in fact, some migratory species use hurricane winds to speed them along.

Overall, Kerr said, "the best way that people can help is to give wildlife their space."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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