Dolphin Baby Boom Could Follow Hurricanes Maria and Irma

Mother and baby bottlenose dolphins. Albert Gea/Reuters

Hurricanes Irma and Maria tragically caused incredible damage throughout the Caribbean to both humans and property. But amid the horrors, there may be one tiny bright spot to come: more baby bottlenose dolphins. That's based on evidence from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which suggests that dolphin reproduction may boom about two years after a severe storm.

There won't be an increase right away, and scientists won't know for a couple of years how well dolphins do in the wake of the back-to-back monster hurricanes. Dolphins give birth earlier in the year, typically before the start of autumn, off the coast of Florida, so there aren't any more calves to come this year. But there are two (depressing) ways that a team of scientists who study animal welfare think major storms could lead to a population boom in the year or two immediately after severe hurricane damage.

First, storms kill young calves: Dolphins typically reproduce only every few years, spending the intervening time nursing. But when a calf dies, the mother can breed again the next season. So if the storms wiped out a sizable percentage of calves born in the past couple of years, next season could see many more female dolphins breeding in the same year than usual—and that would mean a baby boom.

The other possible factor is the hurricane's destruction of fishing boats, which usually compete with dolphins for fish. That means that the dolphins that made it through the storm will likely have an easier time tracking down their meals. And that can be a sizable effect—Hurricane Katrina nearly halved Mississippi's commercial fishing haul in the next year. Fewer boats mean less traffic to upset the dolphins, and fewer fishing boats means more food for dolphins, even despite the fish kills that are often caused by the large influxes of nutrients hurricanes push off land and into the ocean.

Before Hurricane Irma approached Cuba, six captive dolphins drew headlines when they were evacuated to another aquarium amid fears their enclosures wouldn't hold up to the storm. The hurricane's impact on wild marine mammals has been a concern throughout the storm, with even television reporters pitching in to rescue stranded dolphins.

Generally conservationists are not particularly concerned by bottlenose dolphin populations, thanks to their wide spread, and scientists estimate there are likely about 180,000 of the animals living in the Gulf of Mexico and off the east coast of North America.