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Whether you want to hear it or not, climate change is a serious problem and something we really need to get on top of. The effects have been devastating including habitat loss for wildlife, extinction of plant species, rising sea levels, and much more.
While there’s a lot that humans can do to counter the problems we have already caused, there’s evidence to show that animals can play their part as well. And it all comes down to lowering carbon emissions.
The problem is that many animals are dying off, and this causes carbon levels to rise. However, conservations are now looking at rewilding in an attempt to put everything back into balance.
What is Carbon Sequestration?
The term carbon sequestration might sound complicated but it’s simply referring to the storage of carbon within plants, oceans, rocks, and soil.
While this is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, it’s also possible for humans to remove carbon from the air and store it in the aforementioned places. This benefits plants as they rely on carbon to survive, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
Carbon is the leading cause of global warming, and human activity creates a lot of it. As much as 45% of all carbon created by humans is left in the earth’s atmosphere, and that isn’t good news!
There are two main forms of carbon sequestration; geological and biological.
- Geologic carbon sequestration is a new technology that involves removing carbon from power plants, turning it into liquid, and storing it in rock formations.
- Biologic carbon sequestration occurs naturally during processes such as plant photosynthesis. The carbon is then stored in the plants and soil.
So, where do wild animals come into all this? Quite simple, animals, particularly large ones, can store carbon, therefore effectively removing it from the atmosphere. This could be so effective and studies have shown that by protecting animals and rewilding could result in them storing up to 6.41 billion tonnes of carbon every year!
But you might be wondering how exactly these animals remove and store carbon and it’s quite simply by existing. They gather and store carbon through a wide variety of activities like foraging, seed dispersal, and by disturbing the soil.
However, biodiversity is incredibly important if we are to achieve what we’re hoping for. Because of climate change, the earth has lost as much as 69% of animal populations so this is something we need to work on rebuilding.
Animals that Can Help Slow the Effects of Climate Change
Animals of all types and in all locations can help to reduce the effects of climate change. From the bees buzzing in your backyard to the mighty elephants of the African plains, they all have an important role to fulfill.
Whales are the largest animals on earth, with the blue whale taking the top spot, weighing up to 150,000 kg (330,693 lbs)! These huge but gentle creatures play an essential role in helping to reduce climate change by storing carbon.
On average, a single whale can absorb as much as 33 tonnes of carbon which they store in their bodies. Consider that there are an estimated 1.5 million whales on earth, and that’s a lot of carbon. What’s more, when a whale dies, its body sinks to the bottom of the ocean along with all the carbon it has absorbed during its life.
What’s more, whales play an important role in the trophic cascade effect. This is essentially a result of the food chain and, in the case of whales relates to the number of phytoplankton in the ocean. Whale excrement acts as something of a fertilizer for phytoplankton, and these tiny creatures pull in an enormous amount of carbon from the air and into the ocean where it can be stored. The more whales there are, the more this effect can impact climate change for the good.
That said, whale populations have seriously declined in recent years, but there are efforts to protect and restore their populations which will have a direct impact on the effects of climate change.
Bees might not be anywhere near the same size as a whale, but their presence on planet Earth is just as important when it comes to lowering carbon.
Did you know that the honey bee alone is responsible for pollination of up to 70% of human crops? Why is that such a big deal, you’re wondering? Well, if bees were to go extinct, and numbers have declined because of climate change, these crops would struggle to survive. Many may even go extinct.
Again, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with climate change. Sure, you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on your favorite foods anymore, but the plants that those foods come from hold onto carbon.
As I discussed earlier in this article, plants are one of the primary natural sources for carbon sequestration and without them, there’d be a lot more carbon in the atmosphere which would increase problems with global warming.
Bees not only pollinate plants and crops so we can harvest them, but pollination is essential in plant reproduction. Without it, plants would not be able to reproduce and would die out. Then where would all that excess carbon go?
On top of this, where bee pollination cannot be done, farmers have to use carbon-intensive methods of farming which again, contributes to the climate crisis. Bees provide a natural and organic solution to this.
African Forest Elephants
While the African forest elephant is the smallest elephant species, it’s still large enough to capture as many as 9000 tonnes of carbon in its lifetime! These elephants, found in the Congo regions of Africa are sometimes referred to as the gardeners of the forest and that’s because of how they forage.
As forest elephants move through their habitat in search of food, they trample over smaller plants that could inhibit the growth of slow-growing tree species. By doing this, they give these large trees a much greater chance of growing and in turn, those same trees store an enormous amount of carbon from the atmosphere.
Not only this, but these elephants thin out vegetation simply by eating it, which again aids in the growth of larger, carbon-absorbing species that would otherwise have to fight for access to light and water.
Because of this, African forest elephants are considered to be a keystone species. Keystone species are animals and plants that have a significant impact on the environment. If they were removed, then serious, often negative changes would take place.
Salmon are another keystone species, and there are two different types; Atlantic and Pacific salmon. They’re fascinating creatures that are born in rivers, head out to sea, and then face an arduous journey back to their breeding grounds once they reach sexual maturity.
Life cycle aside, salmon also play a significant role in reducing the effects of climate change. For example, when these fish return to the river in which they were born, they bring with them some of the carbon they absorbed while in the ocean.
In a process called the salmon cycle, when the fish dies, all of the carbon stored in its body is released into the surrounding environment. Now, you might think that this is a bad thing, but carbon isn’t always negative.
As you’re probably aware, plants and trees need carbon as much as humans need oxygen. So, when the carbon from the salmon is transferred, these plants absorb it and it serves as an essential nutrient for them. This in turn encourages greater growth which results in larger, healthier plants that are able to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.
Any remaining salmon carcasses are usually washed back out to sea and, just like whales, will sink to the ocean floor. Here, any carbon in their bodies is safely sequestered and this limits its effects on the atmosphere.
Sadly, gorillas are a heavily endangered primate, so it’s really important that humans play their part in protecting populations. Not only for the mere survival of these amazing apes but also because they’re crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change.
These beautiful creatures feed largely on a diet of fleshy fruits which contain seeds. Since the seeds are not damaged as they pass through the gorilla’s system, when they’re excreted, they’re ready to spout into a new plant. The great thing about this is that it helps to maintain plant diversity which is essential to a balanced and healthy ecosystem that’s better able to resist the effects of climate change.
Moreover, there are thousands of gorillas in the Cuvette Central area, which is a peatland that absorbs an astonishing amount of carbon; it’s therefore known as a carbon sink. In this area alone, there is as much carbon stored here as the United States has produced in the last two decades! If it weren’t for the gorillas that help to maintain the habitat, this likely wouldn’t be possible.
Wolves have been given a pretty bad rep with their appearance in horror movies and the like. However, these highly intelligent and social animals are an essential member of the ecosystem.
Having a well-balanced ecosystem is crucial to mitigating the effects of climate change. As I mentioned earlier, when talking about whales, the trophic cascade throughout the food chain is vital in ensuring there are enough carbon-absorbing organisms.
This was evidenced back in the late 1920s when the remaining wolves in the Yellowstone National Park were killed in an effort to remove predators. However, things quickly went south and herbivorous species’ populations grew out of control. Of course, this had a direct impact on the number of trees which in turn meant that not as much carbon was being absorbed from the atmosphere.
Noticing this, employees of the park realized the importance of rewilding wolves and upon doing so, began to notice almost immediate changes. When the ecosystem is intact, this makes the environment far less susceptible to the effects that climate change may cause.
Tigers are a critically endangered species, and it’s never been more important to protect them. While there were as many as 100,000 individuals in the wild just 100 years ago, today there remains less than 4000.
But as with all the other animals on this list, these big cats are incidentally doing a lot for the planet in terms of the climate crisis.
As I discussed about wolves, tigers are at the top of the food chain. Removing them, or indeed allowing them to become extinct, means a direct negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem. Since they prey on herbivorous animals like deer, a lack of tigers would mean rapidly growing numbers of their prey.
This prey would then overgraze the land, and plants would become sparse. As we well know by now, having plants and trees to absorb carbon is essential if we want to mitigate the effects we’ve already caused. Not only this but, since plants release oxygen, a lack of them would mean poorer air quality.
The tapir is a large herbivorous mammal that closely resembles the appearance of a pig. They’re found in Central and South America in forest and wetland habitats as well as on savannas.
One of the key ways that tapirs aid in lowering atmospheric carbon is through seed dispersal. This might not seem like a lot, but when you consider their collective work, there’s no denying that they’re making a difference.
So, how does it work? Well, tapirs consume an enormous amount of fruit and when this passes through their bodies, the seeds remain undigested. They’re then excreted and fall to the ground, allowing new plants to grow. And as we well know by now, plants are an important player when it comes to carbon sequestration.
During studies, researchers found as many as 24 different types of seeds in tapir droppings, demonstrating that they’re responsible for the growth of entire new forests.
Could Rewilding Help Tackle Climate Change?
Rewilding is a type of conservation that restores the health of an ecosystem through improved biodiversity. This includes reintroducing predators and keystone species to bring ecosystems back into a healthy state.
As things stand, there aren’t any direct rewilding efforts in place, but there are several strategies that are being used by conservation projects. These can include many things such as restoring woodlands as well as protecting and expanding them.
The idea behind this is that these woodlands can provide greater habitats for wildlife all throughout the food chain. This increase in biodiversity plays an important role in ecosystem health but the larger areas of forest also provide us with more plants and trees for carbon sequestration.
On top of this, efforts are being made to bring down the number of grazing herbivores. As things stand, these animals, while important, are being allowed to overgraze. This results in the removal of plants and trees and decreases the available carbon stores.
By reintroducing lost species into the wild, we’re also able to increase biodiversity and fill those gaps in the food chain that are the source of high populations of grazing animals. This will restore the natural process of the predator-prey relationship. This includes the Indian efforts to reintroduce cheetahs into the wild.
It’s also important that we pay attention to our rivers and streams. It’s not uncommon for flooding to occur, but when this happens, it encroaches on the available habitat for many important species. To this end, we’re looking at managing natural dams made by beavers. In some areas, where flooding is likely, beavers are being introduced. On the other hand, where dams prevent fish from moving freely and natural processes are unable to take place, dams are being removed.
Furthermore, in the ocean environment, conservationists are restoring coral reefs and other marine habitats to improve biodiversity and create more capacity for carbon storage.
But the question remains; is this going to be effective? According to research, it’s believed that purely by restoring and protecting habitats, we could have already stored up to half of the greenhouse gasses created by humans since the industrial revolution. Moreover, the same research proved that this action alone could prevent up to 70% of expected species loss.
It’s also really important to note the changes to wildlife that have contributed to the climate crisis. For example, in Africa, a lot of wildlife has been replaced with cattle which emit methane; a greenhouse gas. Over the last 1000 years, wildlife has slowly been replaced with cattle, and this has doubled the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted to more than 8 billion tonnes each year. Imagine what reintroducing wildlife would do to those figures.
While it wouldn’t be possible to totally eliminate emissions, it has been shown that by restoring natural areas, serious differences could be made. For example, it’s estimated that by restoring 30% of the landscapes in Britain, this alone would allow us to capture up to 12% of all greenhouse gasses.
In the same country, there’s a significant focus on restoring marine habitats. Even as things stand, the water around the coastlines of the United Kingdom contains some 205 million tonnes of sequestered carbon; that’s 50 times more than what is stored in British forests and woodlands. Improving the health of the marine environment will allow us to use this natural resource all the more.
It’s obvious that by rewilding and other conservation methods, we will be able to reverse some of the effects of climate change and prevent further problems in the future. While it may take some time, every little effort counts.