The moment disaster strikes – a hurricane hits, or forest fires rage out of control – we hear about the human impact. News feeds and social media light up with statistics about the magnitude of the tragedy, the number of fatalities, how many homes have been lost and how many people displaced.
This sort of focus on human life is perfectly understandable, of course. But what often gets overlooked is that natural disasters also have an impact on local wild animals – some of them already vulnerable to extinction. When their habitats are destroyed, how do animals fare?
Monkeys and apes alike can periodically have their rainforest habitat uprooted and destroyed around them. Researchers working in these disaster-prone regions have the dubious advantage of being able to study how animals cope when their habitat is dramatically altered.
In 2015, thousands of forest fires burned through the drought-ravaged rainforests of Indonesia and damaged precious habitat for the endangered orangutans living there.
Kutai National Park on Indonesian Borneo was among the areas devastated. Fires ate away trees, toppling them to the ground or leaving them unstable. The smoke from the fires choked out the Sun and enveloped everything in a dull haze.
The local orangutans found that the food they ate was gone and the trees they used to travel around their environment were severely damaged. How many individuals died? Do the survivors still have food to eat? How long before their habitat recovers?
To best answer these questions, researchers need data from before the disaster so they can more accurately compare it to their observations in the aftermath. Having a research site wiped out by fire or hurricane is not exactly lucky, but it has provided scientists with crucial information about the attributes that can enhance survival.
Anne Russon of York University in Ontario, Canada, has spent 28 years studying orangutans.
Two factors could now tip the balance against the orangutans and the forests
"East Bornean orangutans are known as being the toughest and most resilient of all the orangutans," she says. "It's amazing what they can do to survive some of these things."
This time they have really been put to the test.
The weather patterns triggered by the 2014-2016 El Niño event gave rise to prolonged droughts in Borneo – the third time this has happened in the past 35 years. Scientists predict that the current drought will continue until the middle of this year – ending right in time for the beginning of the dry season.
El Niño-triggered droughts have been happening cyclically for thousands of years, and ecosystems have adapted. For instance, the drier, drought-prone east Bornean forest contains plants that thrive in the dry season, while other plants take advantage of the rain.
Consequently, the orangutans there are not picky eaters. "They'll eat anything," says Russon.
However, two factors could now tip the balance against the orangutans and the forests.
First, scientists predict that the warming climate may increase the frequency and the severity of extreme weather events.
The droughts are one thing, but the real problem [is] the fires, and that's a human thing
Forests can withstand some damage, but bigger storms that happen more often, and droughts that are more severe, mean the forests will not have as much time to recover as in the past. In Russon's forest in east Borneo, she says that it takes about 20 years for the trees to regrow.
The second factor is the growing pressure from humanity.
The drought conditions in Borneo make natural fires more likely – but most of the fires that have swept through the region were actually started by people burning down trees to clear the land for a home, garden, or small plantation. Inevitably, when conditions are so dry, some of those fires burned out of control.
"The droughts are one thing, but the real problem [is] the fires, and that's a human thing," says Russon.
Between the drought and the fires, plants have not grown well, so the orangutans' food supplies are running low. The researchers have seen behavioural signs that the orangutans are more stressed than normal in 2016. During a typical dry season, they lose weight. But 2016 has not been typical.
"Water levels are extremely low," says Russon, "all kinds of trees have died. We don't even see insects any more," she says.
The worsening conditions have brought orangutans into increased contact with people
Typically, females live in small home ranges of only 1 or 2 sq km. "They establish a place to live and that's their space," Russon says.
This makes it difficult for individuals to move when conditions deteriorate. Such a move would probably take them into the territory of another orangutan, leading to competition and conflict. Researchers have reported unusual fights amongst the normally docile apes, even fights to the death.
More damaging still, the worsening conditions have brought orangutans into increased contact with people. Orangutans will take food from gardens when there is none available elsewhere, and the resulting human-ape conflict almost never ends well for the ape.
Elsewhere in Borneo, orangutans face even more severe problems.
The Sabangau Forest of southern Borneo grows on top of peat swamps. Peat forms over the course of thousands of years from organic plant matter and stores huge amounts of carbon. When it is waterlogged, it is naturally fire-resistant.
The orangutans are well adjusted to the natural extremes of their habitats
But poor management of the peatland has seen some of the water drained away, turning the peat into a tinderbox. The fires of 2015 ravaged these forests, releasing choking pollutants and massive amounts of carbon.
Peat fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and the peat layer does not re-grow when it is damaged. Since these forests would not normally face the dry conditions and periodic fires of Russon's forests further north-east, neither the plants nor the animals are well-adapted.
"The orangutans are well adjusted to the natural extremes of their habitats," says Russon. "The problem is whether they can cope with the humans."
Organisations such as the UK-based Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project are working to conserve the peatland forests. But as things stand, the long-term impact of the recent droughts on orangutans remains uncertain.
Thousands of kilometres from Indonesia, in hurricane-prone Belize, the impact of natural disaster on monkeys is a little clearer – if only because the natural disasters in question occurred several years ago.
In a few violent hours, thousands of trees were uprooted
"We had one research site hit by a hurricane in 2001," says Mary Pavelka of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. "Then our second site was hit by a double whammy of hurricane and fire in 2010."
Pavelka works with her colleague Hugh Notman and a research team to study black howler monkeys and black-handed spider monkeys. The researchers now have more experience than they ever wanted into how these two species fare in the face of catastrophe.
Pavelka's team spent three years observing the black howler monkeys living in the lowland jungle of Monkey River on the Caribbean Sea. Then Hurricane Iris hit in 2001.
Churning clouds rolled in off the ocean, stirring up 145mph (233km/h) winds that slammed into the dense jungle. Branches and trunks snapped under the force of the wind and, in a few violent hours, thousands of trees were uprooted. Bushy cohune palms, dogwood, and fruit-laden fig and hog plum trees – all toppled to the ground.
"The forest went from being a proper tropical forest to looking like telephone poles sticking up out of brush," she says. The "telephone poles" were the royal palms that remained upright, having lost their leafy tops.
Hemmed in by ocean to the east, and by savannah, citrus farms and highways to the north, west, and south, the monkeys had no escape. The storm levelled their habitat.
For three years, the monkey population kept dropping until it was a mere 20% of the original
When Pavelka's team was finally able to access the forest, they found that the resident howler monkeys had suffered a massive blow. 60% of the population had been killed.
Despite the initial loss of life, Pavelka's team had reason to believe that the howlers would be all right. When trees are stressed and cannot afford to squander precious energy producing fruit, the monkeys were expected to happily eat leaves instead. "They are considered to be one of the most, if not the most resilient of the New World monkeys," Pavelka says.
But that is not what her team found.
For three years, the monkey population kept dropping until it was a mere 20% of the original. Few babies were born and those that were did not survive. The researchers feared a local extinction of the species.
Eventually the population stabilised and started to rise again – but only when fruit returned to the fruit trees. It turns out that howlers rely on fruit much more than anyone realised.
"Howlers are supposed to be able to survive on just leaves, but they clearly can't," Notman says. "That population almost didn't make it."
They're usually thought to be the first to go and the last to come back when there's habitat damage
The results were interesting. But even so, Pavelka wanted to study monkeys in an undisturbed environment. She began another project in Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, about 99 miles (160km) north of Monkey River, this time focusing on the more elusive spider monkeys.
Three years into the project, Hurricane Richard swept through. Once again, Pavelka had a disaster to study.
Unlike howler monkeys, spider monkeys have a reputation for being sensitive – they can give researchers an indication of the general health of an ecosystem.
"They're usually thought to be the first to go and the last to come back when there's habitat damage," Pavelka says. In the aftermath of Hurricane Richard, "we thought the spider population was done".
To make matters worse, about six months after the storm, fires swept across the savannah and into the jungle, aided by the deadfall left by the hurricane. To track the fate of the monkeys, the researchers had to wade through a forest floor of ash and clamber over still-burning trees for weeks.
Once again, the monkeys surprised them. Despite the hurricane and fire, not a single individual was lost. Babies were born and thrived in the immediate aftermath, despite the loss of fruiting trees – fig and copal being particular spider monkey favourites.
Their social flexibility was the key to their success
The researchers believe it was the population's social flexibility that played the biggest role in their survival.
Spider monkeys live in large communities of 30 to 50 individuals, but they are never all together at once. Instead, they have a fluid system where they come together in smaller sub-groups of about two to five individuals. The subgroup membership changes constantly, like teenagers switching up their group of friends from one day to the next.
After their habitat was damaged, the monkeys adapted by living in even smaller sub-groups, with a fixed rather than fluid structure. This has the advantage, Notman says, of decreasing the competition for food at each feeding site, and making it easier to travel through a damaged habitat. Their switch from a highly fluid social structure to one that was more stable likely helped them survive.
"Their social flexibility was the key to their success," he says.
In two years, the jungle had healed some of its scars, and the spider monkeys were back to their old habits – chattering noisily, sleeping, fighting, grooming – in their "new" old habitat. This "fragile" species had proved to be unexpectedly resilient.
Many species might have a fighting chance of survival even in the face of severe weather events
"So from the tale of two hurricanes," says Pavelka, "it's clear we have a lot to learn."
Every disaster is different. Species and the ecosystems they occupy will have traits that make them more or less able to withstand dramatic habitat destruction. Even so, the lessons from these ape and monkey studies suggest that species with flexible diets and flexible social arrangements have a better chance of survival in the face of disaster.
Human activities – including hunting and deforestation – pose their own challenges to wildlife survival, of course, but if those pressures can be eased, many species might have a fighting chance of survival even in the face of severe weather events.
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