Animals living in the wild must face many challenges from the moment they are born or hatch from their eggs. Weather conditions and natural disasters can have devastating effects on their wellbeing or cause them to die in painful or frightening ways. Large animals who run to safety and birds who can fly away make up only a small percentage of these animals. Smaller animals have even greater difficulty because they cannot escape. In this video, you’ll find out how weather conditions and natural disasters affect individuals of many different types.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
Now that we have seen what wild animal suffering is, we will examine the different ways animals suffer in the wild. We’re going to start by considering how they can be harmed by factors related to their physical environment, in particular by weather conditions and natural disasters.
Weather, especially temperature, plays a major role in influencing the suffering of animals in the wild. Fluctuations in temperature in certain regions affect large numbers of animals. Many animals, especially those who reproduce in large numbers, may colonize a certain area when weatherconditions are fit for them to live there, only to die later when weather conditions change. Floods and heavy winds can also displace marine animals so they end up in unfavorable environments. Cold-blooded animals like fishes,amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates are particularly susceptible to sudden changes in temperature. Young animals who cannot migrate or who live in shallow waters that get cold more quickly are especially at risk.
Thirst is another major contributor to high mortality rates in wild animals. There are two fundamental ways the lack of water causes wild animals to suffer and often to die painfully. First, during times of drought, there are not enough resources available for a large population of animals, so many of them die of thirst. Second, as with malnutrition, some animals show a reluctance to seek water because of the risk posed by predators. They hide in safe places where there is little or no water. Eventually, thirst forces animals to take many risks to satisfy their need for water. When they finally leave their hiding places, they are so debilitated that they become easy prey at watering holes or in open fields. Others stay in their hiding places until they are so dehydrated that they cannot move. Thus, they are unable to reach water and they die of thirst.
Extreme thirst is a frightening experience. It produces a sense of exhaustion caused by reduced blood volume, and the body attempts to compensate for the lack of water by raising the respiratory and heart rates. Next comes dizziness and collapse, and ultimately death.
Diseases can also lead to dehydration. For example, frogs can be infected by the chytrid fungus, which thickens their skin so much that they can’t absorb water and essential nutrients. Since frogs primarily hydrate themselves through their skin, this is usually deadly if left untreated. A treatment exists and the infection is simple to cure, but currently there is no way to treat large populations of frogs in the wild. The disease can be further complicated by other factors such as heat stress. Heat stress can worsen the condition of a dehydrated frog, even at temperatures that do not harm them when they are hydrated.
At times, authorities respond to droughts or lack of food in ways that harm the animals who are suffering. Sometimes measures are approved to deliberately starve animals. This happens, for example, to urban pigeons.
Cold weather leads to loss of life more routinely than hot weather. Animals who don’t hibernate or don’t become dormant in cold weather have to endure large variations in temperature. The temperatures may fall within a range they can survive but still be very uncomfortable. This can weaken an animal’s immune system and make her more susceptible to illness.
It’s common for large portions of a population of mammals to die every winter, and more than half can be wipedout during a particularly harsh winter. Unlike many other animals in temperate climates, deer populations don’t migrate or hibernate in the winter. They try to crowd into the few spots that provide some shelter from the cold, wind, and snow. Food is also scarcer for them during the winter.1
Animals who hibernate are also more vulnerable during the winter due to an increased risk of disease or starvation before the winter’s end. For example, bats can suffer from frostbite or starve to death if they awaken during their winter hibernation and fly around too much, depleting the fat stores they need to get them through the rest of the winter. Crickets, like many other insects, can survive the winter in diapause (dormancy). Whether they survive typically depends on which stage of their life cycle they are in and how unstable the winter temperatures are. Some insects can withstand being frozen solid because they produce cryoprotective chemicals similar to antifreeze. However, if they thaw out due to sudden warming temperatures, they may not survive a refreeze.2
Birds can usually tolerate a relatively large range of temperatures. But if they are sick or injured and unable to fly to a warmer place or can’t keep up their body heat in the winter, they can suffer from frostbite. They can also suffer from crash landings on ice or wet pavement that they mistake for water. Swans and other birds who can’t move well out of water sometimes get stuck on ice and injure their wings trying to flap them against the hard surface.3
Cold-blooded animals like fishes, amphibians, and reptiles have to expose themselves to warmer or cooler water or air to regulate their body heat. As a result, they are more vulnerable than mammals and birds to heat stress or hypothermia due to sudden temperature changes. Although marine environments generally have smaller temperature fluctuations than air, there can be a large variation in temperatures between bodies of water. Just as land animals migrate to inhabit new areas, marine animals can move into areas that are colder or hotter than is good for their bodies.
Sea turtles commonly experience “cold stunning” when there is a rapid change in temperature or when the water remains too cold for too long. Cold stunning occurs when decreased heart rate and circulation result in shock and lethargy that can be fatal. Young turtles are especially at risk because they often live in shallow water that gets cold faster. Cold stunning often happens during unusually cold spells, but in some areas it is chronic, occurring every winter and killing more than half the turtles who aren’t able to migrate.4
In response to warmer temperatures, the metabolism of some marine animals slows down, enabling them to better adapt. However, many marine animals experience heat stress that impairs their ability to consume oxygen. If temperatures remain too high for too long, they will be unable tosurvive. In extreme cases, or when changes in the climate occur progressively over longer time periods, entire populations may die off, suffering a great deal in the process. Animals dying from extreme weather conditions can experience a lot of pain in addition to losing their lives.
Many factors other than extremes of temperature can affect animal populations. Some animals require a certain level of humidity to thrive and can suffer a great deal in arid regions. For others, too much humidity or rain can be harmful. Although there are many animals who are not affected by rain, or who actually like rain, there are others who are bothered by it or have illnesses or physical conditions that are worsened by it. Just as rain, snow, and strong wind can negatively impact human wellbeing, they can cause similar discomfort and stress to animals living in the wild. Even if these uncomfortable weather conditions don’t kill them, just as they usually don’t kill us, they can still cause suffering for nonhuman animals. Without access to adequate shelter or medical care, complications that would be minor for humans can be severe for animals living in the wild.
Several other weather phenomena can have a huge impact on animals, and can wipe out entire populations. Their effects can combine with other factors such as disease and the availability of food and water. Consider, for example, droughts, heavy snows, and flooding. These extreme conditions can kill animals directly, for example by drowning, or indirectly, for example by damaging the food supply. Weather conditions can also trigger epidemics among animals. Many animals get weaker during the winter due to the harsh weather, which makes them more susceptible to becoming sick. Other animals suffer from diseases that become active only when certain weather conditions occur. For example, many birds carry avian cholera that affects them mainly in very cold weather. Lobsters are more susceptible to lobster shell disease when the water is warmer, which weakens their shells and makes them more susceptible to injury and predation.
Animals living in the wild are particularly vulnerable in natural disasters. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and forest fires can have devastating consequences for them. Many animals die, drowned or buried alive by dirt, ash, lava, or snow; crushed to death in collapsed or burnt burrows; smashed against trees and rocks, or pelted by hailstones. Others sustain major injuries.
Animals are often at high risk of being displaced and sometimes orphaned, either because they moved to safer places or because they were swept away by high winds or rushing flood waters. If displaced animals are crowded together in a small area, they risk major outbreaks of disease and parasite infestations. Malnutrition and starvation due to limited food supplies also become major risks.
The wind, rain, and debris from storms injure and kill animals, including destroying shelters and contaminating food and water sources. Strong winds and rain can cause broken limbs and head trauma, as well as breathing problems and infections from getting water in the lungs. Most of these problems would not be fatal if the animals received care, but in most cases, they do not. A few lucky mammals and birds get care if they are blown into urban areas and are found disoriented on someone’s lawn.
Rotating storms known as supercell thunderstorms can rise 10 miles high and have hurricane-force winds. When these storms occur in colder weather, animals are killed or injured when they are pelted with jagged hailstones the sizeof golf balls.5 Storm surges and strong winds can create such pressure on the seabed floor that large amounts of sediment and large objects are stirred up and tossed around. The pressure can also rapidly mix the colder water near the bottom of the ocean with warmer shallow waters. This can cause hypothermia in cold-blooded animals who rely on the water temperature to regulate their body temperature. The strong currents produced by the mixing waters can kill many small and slow-moving animals who can’t just swim away.6
Smaller animals are more vulnerable to drowning or dying in floods and mudslides.7 Burrowing animals may be safe from smaller disturbances, but torrential rains can collapse their burrows or block the entrances, trapping them or leaving them without shelter. Burrow entrances can be blocked by branches, leaves, stones and other debris moved around by water or wind. Leaves and debris can also harm marine animals, blocking sunlight, reducing oxygen levels as they rot, and suffocating animals with gills by blocking them.8
A single wildfire can kill millions of animals.9 The flames and smoke of forest fires kill most animals in their path, including many burrowing animals who are too near the surface, and animals who live in rivers and streams as the flames pass over. Animals who run away may be caught by waiting predators along the path. Even if they survive the fires, the aftermath can leave animals with burns, blindness, and respiratory problems that can be fatal or permanently debilitating.
Some animals, like squirrels, porcupines, and koalas try to get away by climbing trees, which is not a good strategy in a fire. Other animals may try to flee but then panic and return to their dens. Smaller animals can burrow into the ground but if they don’t burrow deeply enough, they will die when their dens heat up like an oven.10 Fleeing animals may die due to smoke inhalation, burns, exhaustion, disorientation, or attacks from other animals.11 Mothers may not be able to leave with their babies, and territorial animals may be more reluctant to leave and end up staying where they are until it’s too late to get away.
Smoke injury is sometimes short-lived and heals within a few days. However, if it is severe enough or prolonged, it can cause greater harm, including lung damage, vision loss, or blindness. Birds are especially at risk of serious respiratory harm because of how muchair they take in relative to their size.12 Burned skin can cause a lot of pain, limit mobility, and may never heal completely. Singed wings and other appendages can affect an animal’s ability to move around and navigate.
In earthquakes, animals can be crushed by falling rocks. Sea birds and aquatic animals who live in shallow waters near the shore are buried in sand or debris and suffocate. Many of them are washed ashore where they die slowly because they can’t breathe outside of water. Earthquakes may be followed by and slides that bury animals alive and destroy their homes, or by floods that can drown them or sweep them away.13
In addition to shaking land, earthquakes can shake and displace the seabed. Land masses can sink into the water,along with the animals who live there. When the ocean floor is displaced, it can create a tsunami, which is a series of high, fast waves that begin quickly, can cross oceans, and can last for days. When tsunamis strike, birds and other small animalscan drown when they are washed into the water and unable to get back to dry land.14
Animals can also be harmed by volcanic eruptions. They can last for months or years, spewing abrasive and toxic lava and ash, causing explosions, and heating nearby water that can boil marine animals alive. Ash deposited by volcanoes on land contains chemicals and sharp edges that harm animals in the area for many years after an eruption. The sharp edges of the ash cause eye and skin irritation and are abrasive to teeth, hooves, and insect wings. Ingestion of the ash causes respiratory problems and gastrointestinal blockages.15 Ash and other debris get stuck in gills and suffocate aquatic animals, and lava can leave tiny, glassy shards that harm them as the water passes through their gills. Ash and gases also destroy food and water supplies.
2 Callahan, R. (2018) “How do crickets go into a hibernation state when cold?”, Sciencing, October 17 [accessed on 23 June 2019].
3 Brown, C. R. & Brown, M. B. (1998) “Intense natural selection on body size and wing and tail asymmetry in cliff swallows during severe weather”, Evolution, 52, pp. 1461-1475; Raddatz, K. (2018) “Frigid temps pose danger to local wildlife”, CBS Minnesota, January 4 [accessed on 19 June 2019].
4 Gabriel, M. N. (2019) “Hundreds of sea turtles ‘cold-stunned’ by frigid temperatures in Gulf waters”, USA Today, Dec 15 [accessed on 19 June 2019]; Foley, A. M.; Singel, K. E.; Dutton, P. H.; Summers, T. M.; Redlow, A.E. & Lessman, J. (2007) “Characteristics of a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) assemblage in northwestern Florida determined during a hypothermic stunning event”, Gulf of Mexico Science, 25, pp. 131-145.
7 Shafeeq, M. (2018) “Kerala floods leave trail of destruction in forests; elephants, tigers among several animals killed”, Firstpost, Aug 30 [accessed on 21 August 2019].
9 Phys.org (2019) “More than 2 million animals perish in Bolivia wildfires”, Phys.org, September 26 [accessed on 5 October 2019].
12 Cope, R. B. (2019) “Overview of smoke inhalation”, Merck manual: Veterinary manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/smoke-inhalation/overview-of-smoke-inhalation[accessedon 23 September 2019].
13 Bressan, D. (2016) “Earthquakes can have devastating impacts on wildlife”, Forbes, Nov 30 [accessed on 31 August 2019].
14 Goldman, J. (2011) “Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and the environment”, Scientific American, March 22 [accessed on 13 September 2019].