Ah, late summer. When waking in the mountains on a clear, bluebird morning can very easily turn into wary glances skyward, watching clouds gathering and stacking into menacing thunderheads reaching up straight to the heavens. Then the inevitable cowering in a tent or under the cover of trees as thunder booms and lightning bolts flash, far too close for comfort. With good reason, nearby lightning strikes are one of the most frightening backcountry experiences.
And it’s not just humans who should be wary.
In a particularly gruesome scene in a Norwegian national park in 2016, 323 sheep were found dead, huddled tightly together, reportedly struck by lightning during a powerful storm. Lightning can easily jump from body to body when it hits one, making clumped up groups of animals especially prone. Livestock are actually fairly regular victims of lightning strikes. Back in July, for example, 11 head of cattle were electrocuted in Oklahoma when a tree they sheltered under during a thunderstorm was struck by a bolt of lightning. This is relatively common. A researcher at Texas A&M has guessed that as many as 80 percent of accidental livestock fatalities are caused by the poor beasts being struck by lightning.
But some animals are lucky. Or too strong for lightning. Or both.
Take Sparky, for example, a bison who ranged in Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. In July 2013, a biologist spotted Sparky, a large bull, hanging out by himself, distanced from the herd. Sparky appeared bloodied and slightly battered; the biologist initially assumed he’d been injured sparring over a mate.
A closer look however revealed a big hunk of hair on Sparky’s back had been singed off, and there was a lightning exit wound on his leg. It was clear to the biologist that at some point that summer, Sparky had been struck directly by a bolt of lightning, yet, there he was, standing, nonchalantly munching grasses, only slightly worse for wear.
“I went out there and he had burn marks over his hump, was bloody and wounded,” the biologist, Karen Viste-Sparkman, explained. “We had an elk that was struck a few years ago, and we learned from that what it looks like when you are struck by lightning. The elk did not survive.”
Oh, but Sparky did.
At the time, Sparky was about 8 years old. For the next five years, park scientists monitored Sparky, enthralled that he’d survived a direct hit by lightning. Tourists to the refuge would often peer through binoculars, trying to spot Sparky among his fellow bison. He’d turned into a symbol of the herd, and the resilience of the species.
Sparky died a few months back, at the age of 14, not unusual for an animal with a lifespan of 15-20 years. He was a father of three calves. It’s unknown how many animals are struck by lightning each year, nor is there much information about animals actually surviving the experience. Sparky could be one in a million. A force of nature that withstood one of the most spectacular forces of nature on the planet.
Photo by Karen Viste-Sparkman, USFWS.