Quake Question #4: What Is the Impact on Wildlife?

Staff Writer

Readers ask: Although the safety of the people of Japan is our main priority, what ramifications has the catastrophe in Japan had on wildlife? Especially due to the numerous cars and debris polluting the waters, are there certain Japan-exclusive or endangered species of plants or animals that could see a collapse in population, possibly extinction?

Science answers: Scientist M. Sanjayan of The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia, says that the tsunami's biggest impact on wildlife will be on coastal birds nesting on small islands rather than on the Japanese mainland where they could easily fly away. Indeed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reporting that tens of thousands of birds were buried alive by the waves. (The famed Midway Atoll albatrosses will survive as a species, although their numbers took a beating.) The fate of some other endangered species, such as monk seals, is currently unknown. But although many large mammal casualties will certainly be seen, Sanjayan guesses that most of them were able to ride the waves out with minimal fatalities.

Impacts on wildlife from pollution and radiation leaks are a separate issue, however, and one that is continuing to unfold. Sanjayan says that while species will certainly be harmed by this pollution in the short term, history from Chernobyl and the Bikini Atoll shows that once an area is placed off-limits to human activity, wildlife has a way of rebounding within a few decades.

For a complete list of quake questions and answers, see our Quake Questions page. For our complete coverage of the crisis in Japan, see our Japan Earthquake page.

Posted in Asia Japan Quake 2011