The news often shows us images of areas devastated by wildfires. We see steaming forests and shells of homes, of course, but we rarely see how animals fare in the face of ecosystem devastation.
Unsurprisingly, a wildfire causes considerable changes in wildlife, too. Here are five of the many ways wildfires affect wildlife:
1. Some Will Take Cover
Every creature has its way of protecting itself in the face of a wildfire. For smaller animals, a fire forces them to find cover within the forest that’ll protect them from the flames. Small rodents, for example, will burrow into the ground and wait for the fire to pass. Amphibians will do the same, though they might also hide under rocks. Large animals even have a protective tactic if they can’t outrun the flames: they’ll hop into rivers and streams and wait for the fire to subside.
2. Birds Do the Expected
Winged creatures have it easy: they can escape the blaze by just flying away. The only uncertainty for them is what effect smoke inhalation will have on their future health. There’s no research into wildfires specifically, but air pollution has been shown to cause damage to lung tissue, which can lead to fatal respiratory issues.
3. Predators Have a Field Day
We already mentioned how small animals will burrow in the soil to survive an impending wildfire. Once the fire burns, though, these creatures once again find themselves in danger.
That’s because they’ll dig themselves out of the dirt to find all of the overhead brush and coverage has disappeared. This makes them completely visible to predators, especially birds of prey who know where they’re hiding and when they’ll emerge.
4. Many Animals Won’t Make It
Wildfires can spread at up to 14.29 miles per hour. Although bigger, faster animals can run away, the flames will trap some creatures.
This is especially true for baby animals that can’t yet flee fast enough, although some creatures with the wrong defense mechanisms will end up trapped, too. For example, in the face of danger, koalas instinctively climb trees to reach safety. It’s clear that this is the wrong escape plan when the danger is a fire moving toward them.
5. Their Habitats Become Stressed
The occasional forest fire can be a good thing: it can promote the growth of fire-adapted plants, restore nutrients to waterways and refresh the soil.
But a continuous cycle of destructive forest fires can eventually cause too much strain on an ecosystem, stripping the ground of the minerals needed to promote the healthy re-growth of plants and animals. Some ecosystems exist solely within this brush growth that suffers, meaning ongoing forest fires can eradicate them entirely. This is why it’s vital to heed wildfire warnings and be diligent in preventing them from starting unnaturally.
6. Stifled Fires Stifle Diversity
We already mentioned the benefits of wildfires as far as plant life goes, but there are some that specifically serve to diversify an ecosystem. For instance, some plants require heat in order to spread their seeds and grow. Others only appear after a fire. And some animals thrive on the growth of these particular species of foliage.
When wildfires started and spread naturally, the resulting renewal of the ecosystem allowed all species to re-grow and thrive. But now, with homes and human lives at stake, we’ve taken control of wildfires and prevented them from growing, thus stopping this environmental refresh. In turn, species dependent on wildfire heat and post-fire regrowth have suffered. Some are even endangered.
Verdict: They’re Good and Bad
In the end, wildfires have both a positive and negative effect on wildlife. The best thing we can do is to allow nature to start its own blazes, rather than igniting them due to our negligence. That way, they have a renewing effect rather than a damaging one.
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