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Vulnerability of sea turtles and fishes in response to two catastrophic Caribbean hurricanes, Irma and Maria

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Abstract

Extreme weather events (e.g., cyclones, floods, droughts) are capable of changing ecosystems and altering how animals obtain resources. Understanding the behavioural responses of animals being impacted by these natural events can help initiate and ameliorate conservation or management programs. This study investigated short- and long-term space-use of the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), as well as five species of fishes and stingrays, in response to two of the most destructive Caribbean hurricanes in known history – Irma and Maria, which were at their peak intensity when they passed the US Virgin Islands in September of 2017. Using passive acoustic telemetry in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, we show a variety of short-term behavioural patterns initiated across species to reduce exposure to the strong environmental conditions, such as moving to deeper habitats within the study area. Although short-term expansion of activity space was evident for several sea turtles, long-term impacts on space-use and body condition were limited. In contrast, southern stingrays (Hypanus americanus) left the study area shortly after the hurricanes, suggesting vulnerability stemming from altered habitat, prey availability, or temperature/oxygen profiles. This study shows the strong spatial resilience of several nearshore species despite exposure to two consecutive category 5 hurricanes.

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Matley, J. K., Eanes, S., Nemeth, R. S., & Jobsis, P. D. (2019). Vulnerability of sea turtles and fishes in response to two catastrophic Caribbean hurricanes, Irma and Maria. Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-50523-3

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