06/06/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Hurricanes, Rats, Maggots, and Climate Change -- Oh My!

I know what you are thinking, what is the relationship of hurricanes, rats, maggots, and climate change? Bare with me - I have a story to tell about four hurricanes, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, that hit the state of Florida in 2004. This active hurricane season brought lots of rain to Florida, and in my hometown of Gainesville, we saw most of our urban wetlands fill up with water and begin to flood upland areas near residential areas. I live near a small lake and wetland, and I noted with alarm, water creeping up to edges of my house.

In addition to the concerns about my house, as a wildlife biologist, I started thinking about the impacts on wildlife in these urban/wetland/subdivision areas - where are local, terrestrial wildlife species going as their habitats become flooded? Just about then, I began to get interview requests from newspapers about reports of wildlife (snakes, rodents, etc.) appearing more frequently in peoples' yards and in their homes. Uh oh, I thought. Little did I know I would have an experience of my own . . . .

One day, I was driving to work after Hurricane Jeanne, and I flicked on my air conditioning and I heard a loud "Whump, Whump, Whump" coming from my fan underneath the glove compartment. I turned it off, let it rest, and turned it on again. "Whump, Whump, Whump" went the fan again, but this time not as loud and the fan turned a little easier. So I turned it off - turned it back on and it sounded OK after repeating this multiple times. I didn't think much about this episode and I guessed I chalked it up to how old my vehicle was getting.

Three days later, driving my son to school, he remarked, "Dad, do you smell something funny in the car?" I denied it and thought it might be the humid air causing the musty smell in the car. I drove it the next day and began to really notice the quintessential "dead animal" smell in the car but was still in denial. My son, on the other hand, had his head out the window the entire time to school complaining about the smell. Well, I thought, maybe something did die in here?

So, I sniffed around the inside of my car, and I thought the stench was coming from underneath my glove compartment. I got out my flashlight and after removing the glove compartment, I took a look at the fan motor that blows air-conditioned air into the car. Then I saw it, the mass of blood, guts, and fur trapped in the fan blades. Yuck! Something did die in there! How in the heck did it get there and how was I going to clean this? I called up my local auto dealership and asked to make an appointment for a cleaning. As I described the situation, I did get repeated questions from the auto technician, "You got what in where?" I finally made an appointment to bring the car in, but four days later.

Driving the car to the dealership, the car was pretty much intolerable to drive and I had my head stuck out the window the entire trip. On the way, I discovered that flies must have discovered the rotting flesh (as they do) and had laid eggs. How did I know this? I began to see white maggots dropping out of the fan motor onto the passenger floor and crawling around. On arriving at the dealership, I showed the auto technician and wrinkling up his nose, he said encouragingly, "Don't worry, we'll take care of it." I thought to myself, this should be interesting.

A few hours later, I did receive the car back and the technician described in graphic detail how he got the carcasses out of the fan and how he had to vacuum up the wiggling maggots.

"You had two small rats stuck in the fan," he stated with a grimace.

"Two rats?" I asked, "How did they get into the fan inside my car?"

"Well," he drawled, "You have an evaporative tube that sticks out the bottom of your car where condensation from the a/c unit drips out. The rats must have run up the tube and into the fan. Then, you turned on the fan and it chopped them up."

A dead animal smell still lingered in the air as I drove my vehicle home, but it was tolerable with the windows rolled down. As you may have guessed, these critters were looking for another home as their home was flooded from recent rains (most likely they were Eastern Woodrats, cute animals - really!).

But wait, the story does not end there. I did not drive the vehicle for several days after the cleaning, but left the windows up as I keep the car outside and it was still raining on a daily basis. Going on an errand, I opened up the car, and like the exorcist, hundreds of flies came pouring out of the car! What the heck? Well, I looked around the glove compartment and didn't see any pupa shells (these were probably Blow Fly larvae that hatched out). Then, I turned over the floor mat and lo and behold, hundreds of pupa shells were scattered about. The buggers had crawled underneath the mat, escaping the vacuum.

This event, while somewhat dramatic and gross, demonstrates what could possibly happen to wildlife in the advent of climate change. With sea level rise and heavy rainstorm events, upland areas for a variety of wildlife species may become scarce. Peoples' backyards, neighborhoods, and city parks, typically built on higher ground, may become temporary or permanent refugia. For example, think about coastal habitat between cities and the ocean in Florida and other states. As sea levels rise, these developed areas may be the last bit of high ground available for retreating animals. Even periodic heavy rains can have immediate consequences in certain areas if the rainstorms are frequent enough. This means urbanites coming into contact with more and more wildlife.

So what do we do? Well . . . in terms of conserving wildlife habitat for retreating species, we may want to rethink how city parks and open space are designed and managed. Not all retreating animals are rats and snakes, for example, the Painted Bunting breeds in the Southeast its breeding habitat includes maritime hammocks and wooded back dunes. These habitats may become scarce as sea levels rise; city parks and urban remnants may be where these beautiful birds have to raise their offspring. Even in areas that are experiencing drought, cities may become refugia for animals as they landscapes are irrigated by residents. Further, urban residents must understand and become more aware about how to resolve wildlife/human conflicts. It is not about changing wildlife behaviors but humans.

Thus, with climate change, both humans and wildlife have to adapt to environmental changes that occur. It is just with humans, we need to adapt not only with us in mind but wildlife as well. To learn more about urban wildlife and designing cities for biodiversity, there is an online course offered at the Green Building Research Institute.