The bigger you are, the better you fare when climate change causes cyclones

The research findings could help wildlife managers develop strategies to help at-risk animals and pinpoint general traits that help animals survive.

A baboon still stranded in a tree on the Gorongosa National Park floodplain almost a month after the cyclone. Photo credit: Dr. Jen Guyton

Bigger animals fared better during a catastrophic tropical cyclone, new research has found.

As extreme weather events become more common due to climate change, the findings published in Nature could help wildlife managers develop strategies to help at-risk animals before such events hit as well as pinpoint general traits that help animals survive.

Antelope to elephants

Using GPS collars, cameras and aerial surveys of animals ranging in size from antelope to elephants, researchers examined how individuals and entire populations responded when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique in 2019, the deadliest storm on record in Africa.

Big bodies did better

They found in general, the larger an animal, the better they fared, as they were better able to move out of the way of flood waters, while smaller animals were more likely to stay put and less able to move great distances. In addition, larger animals could rely on energy reserves while smaller animals were more prone to starvation.

Population estimates 20 months after the cyclone found oribi and reedbuck, two of the smallest species, declined by 47 to 53 per cent while three larger species, wildebeest, buffalo, and elephant, increased by about 27 per cent.

Climate winners and losers

Every species of animal will respond to change in its environment differently, with potentially cascading consequences for ecosystems that may end up looking very different under climate change, says co-author Dr. Kaitlyn Gaynor (she/they), assistant professor in the UBC department of zoology. “There will be winners and losers when it comes to climate change, and because of that we’ll see changes to the way ecosystems function, including in Canada.”

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