Animals Under Threat from Climate Change

Animals under threat from climate change

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As climate change continues to accelerate, its impact on the planet’s biodiversity looms large. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns are causing a ripple effect throughout ecosystems, and many animal species are struggling to adapt, putting them at risk of extinction.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the threats facing endangered animals due to climate change, and examine the various initiatives being undertaken to protect them.

How Does Climate Change Impact Animals?

How does climate change impact animals?

When most people think of climate change, they simply imagine a rise in global temperatures. This is one of the main issues, but it is far from the only one. There are many factors that affect animals as a direct result of climate change.

Raising Temperatures & Changes in Precipitation Patterns

Most of us are familiar with the idea that different animals require different conditions in order to survive. For example, you wouldn’t expect a polar bear or an Arctic fox to cope on the African savanna.

But many species are faced with rising temperatures that they simply cannot cope with. Furthermore, animals are not only having to deal with warmer temperatures but dryness as well which could lead to periods of extended drought or even wildfires. For example, in the Mojave Desert; the world’s hottest place, temperatures have recently risen by more than 3 degrees. Will there come a time when life simply cannot thrive here?

The changes in the level of precipitation I mentioned earlier can also have the opposite effect and may result in heavier rainfall and flooding. Naturally, this causes alarming damage to ecosystems by washing away vegetation that animals use for shelter and food.

Not only this but there are some species whose breeding is affected by rising temperatures, closing their window of opportunity for breeding to something significantly shorter.

Reduction of Food & Habitat Availability

As higher precipitation, rising temperatures, and change in humidity affect what grows within an ecosystem, animals are having to fight for resources. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, there is now much more snowfall which makes it difficult for animals like Elk to forage for food.

In some areas, habitats are not only being damaged but the very climate is causing animals to flee. Certain butterfly species are migrating further north to get out of the heat but eventually, there will be nowhere left for them to go and their habitat will be lost entirely.

Increased Risk of Diseases

With populations of mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects on the rise as a result of global warming, animals are at greater risk of becoming infected. These mosquitoes are not only being stimulated to reproduce more readily, but their range is expanding. Where they may have been contained to areas closer to the equator, there are now populations much further north and south.

And it isn’t just the mozzies that are to blame. Several bat species could expand their range and come into contact with animals that they never would have done before. These bats may be carrying diseases that could be detrimental to the very survival of new species that contract the viruses.

Contaminated water is also a risk for diseases in animals such as cholera. This typically happens because of extreme weather, such as flooding, which will then carry these diseases further afield.

Changes in Activity Patterns

Winters are not as long and spring seems to come earlier every year. While this might seem idyllic for humans, at first thought, it’s not a good thing at all. In fact, the shifting seasons are messing with the activity patterns of our wildlife species and this is having a detrimental effect.

For example, animals are starting to breed earlier in the year. How is this a problem? Well, there simply aren’t yet enough resources to provide for the young, so survival rates are much lower. The same can be said for adult members of any given species that are coming out of hibernation earlier.

One might assume that this wouldn’t be a problem because all species, including plants, would adapt to changing climates as a single entity. But this isn’t the case which further supports the theory that resources are not abundant enough.

Another behavior that seems to be affected by climate change is migration. Many migratory bird species are shifting their movement patterns. They use environmental clues to tell them when to migrate, but these are no longer reliable due to the shifting seasons and changing temperatures.

Changes in Ocean Acidification & Sea Level Rises

As the temperature rises, ice and snow are melting and the resulting water needs to go somewhere; that’s directly into the oceans. You might have heard about the rising sea levels, but what does this mean for our wildlife?

Think about the habitats of coastal species; their nesting grounds and shelters. As sea levels rise, these areas are being taken over, leaving species with fewer places to thrive. What’s more, as the sea level rises, saltwater gushes into freshwater areas and this is not conducive to the life we find here. 

Let’s also think about the temperature of the water. The ocean temperatures within the first 2,300 feet (700 meters) below the surface have risen an astonishing 1.5 degrees in the last 120 years. This means that the animals that live here are forced to migrate north to cooler waters. Not only does this affect the biodiversity of any given area, but it will also have a knock-on effect for humans who rely on these fish as a source of food. 

If that wasn’t enough, consider that a rise in sea temperatures is one of the leading causes of coral bleaching, a process that is killing off some of the largest reef habitats in the world.

What’s more, since there is an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide in the air which is being deposited into the oceans, this affects the acidity levels of the water. When ocean acidification occurs, this spoils the habitat of animals living here and can even cause problems for creatures like crabs, who find it harder to make their shells.

Animal Species Endangered by Climate Change

Animals across the planet are being affected by climate change, and this could eventually lead to their extinction. I’d like to introduce you to some of the worst affected species and how climate change is causing upheaval for them.

1. Polar Bear

The decline in polar bear populations is happening at different rates in different areas because the ice is melting at varying rates.

The polar bear could be the poster child for climate change affecting animals. These mighty creatures are often depicted struggling on melting ice and it’s a terribly sad image. It’s worth noting that the decline in polar bear populations is happening at different rates in different areas because the ice is melting at varying rates also. In the last 20 years, Arctic winter ice has decreased by a third!

However, one thing is common across the board and that’s that polar bears are not having as many cubs, and their survival rates are much lower. The ice is so important because these bears use it to hunt their primary food source; seals. What’s more, a lack of ice means that polar bears are having to expend unnecessary energy swimming for long distances. 

There’s a common misconception that polar bears could just adapt to the melting ice by adjusting their diet to include sea birds. While this could sustain them to a degree, these animals are adapted to thrive off seal blubber. Without it, they’d have a hard time surviving.

Several charitable organizations are placing a focus on saving polar bears by eradicating the use of fossil fuels and spreading awareness. 

2. Arctic Fox

As the temperature continues to rise, red foxes are starting to encroach on the territory of the Arctic fox.

Where hunting was once the main threat against the Arctic fox, the species bounced back only to be confronted with climate change. These foxes primarily feed on lemmings, but the rising temperatures mean that lemming populations are not as stable. 

What’s even more worrying is that, as the temperature continues to rise, red foxes are starting to encroach on the territory of the Arctic fox. This means that there will be greater competition for any available resources, further putting stress on the Arctic fox populations.

Researchers at a university in Sweden are paying close attention to the species to learn more and potentially save the Arctic Fox. What’s more, in Finland, attempts at breeding captive foxes have finally been successful.

3. Adélie Penguin

In some areas, there has been up to a 50% decline in Adelie penguin populations due to climate change.

As is the case with many species, climate change has a negative effect on the feeding habits of the Adélie penguin. These flightless birds are endemic to the Antarctic but will migrate north during the winter to escape the 24-hour darkness. This is because they will not dive for food in the dark but as the ice is melting, they cannot get far enough north to hunt.

Moreover, where there isn’t a lot of sea ice, the krill that these birds feed on is not as abundant. This means that the penguins have to swim further and expend more energy.

In some areas, there has been up to a 50% decline in Adélie penguin populations. This is likely not only due to access to food but also because these animals depend on sea ice for breeding. Fortunately, there are measures being put in place to boost krill populations and create marine reserves for these birds.

4. Sea Turtles

With rising temperatures, this could affect the gender balance in sea turtles with studies showing that more females will be born.

There’s a lot that surprises me about nature but one thing I find truly fascinating is that the gender of a sea turtle is dependent on the temperature of the sand in which the egg incubates. With rising temperatures, this could affect the gender balance in sea turtles with studies showing that more females will be born.

And that isn’t the only problem when it comes to breeding because the higher sand temperatures may mean that nesting turtles are killed because they simply cannot cope with the heat. These high temperatures could also lead to deformities in young turtles which prevent them from reaching adulthood.

What’s more, with sea levels rising, this has a direct impact on the nesting ground of these animals, limiting them and even washing nests and eggs away entirely. All of these things combined could eventually threaten the survival of the species. To prevent this, scientists are sharing their findings with governments in the hope that protection schemes will be implemented. 

5. Coral

One of the species of most concern when it comes to climate change is coral.

One of the species of most concern when it comes to climate change is coral. While not an animal in the traditional sense of the word, corals are classified as animals as they do not make their own food like plants.

Many species of coral are now critically endangered and this is because of a process known as coral bleaching, which is slowly killing off the reefs. That won’t affect us, right? Well according to research, with coral reefs set to degrade significantly over the coming decades, more than 500 million people will be affected as they rely on these reefs for food, work, and coastal protection. 

Coral bleaching occurs when there are changes in the water, for example, when it becomes too hot. As temperatures rise, the coral becomes stressed and expels the zooxanthellae which give it its color. But this is something of a catch-22 since the coral needs this algae to survive. While temperatures remain high, the algae doesn’t come back and the coral loses its color and dies.

Without coral reefs, the marine ecosystem is under threat, and many species of fish could even go extinct. However, many measures are in place to protect coral, such as the banning of chemical sunscreens and raising awareness on how to prevent further climate change.

6. Snow Leopard

Snow leopards are currently listed as a vulnerable species, but things could get worse for them because of climate change.

The snow leopard is currently listed as a vulnerable species, but things could get worse for them because of climate change. With climate change continuing to be an issue, it’s estimated that as much as a third of these animals’ habitats could now be unsuitable for them.

Snow leopards are adapted to living at high elevations in cold temperatures, but in the last two decades, the temperature of their Asian mountain home has increased by up to 3 degrees.

However, there is some good news. There are three snow leopard sanctuaries across Asia that provide enough ground for the species for the foreseeable future. What’s more, it’s hoped that the area will be able to be used as a base for dispersing the species in years to come.

7. Beluga Whale

One of the main for beluga whales is that the Arctic waters are getting warmer, which means that more species are heading north.

When we think of Arctic animals that are threatened by climate change, we usually imagine the polar bear. While this is correct, not many people realize that the beluga whale faces an even greater threat. One of the main issues is that the Arctic waters are getting warmer, which means that more species are heading north. For the beluga whale and its relatives, bowheads and narwhals, this means having to fight for resources. 

What’s more, studies have shown that the diving ability of these whales has been reduced, which means they’re less easily able to access food. However, some researchers have noted that some beluga whales are now diving more deeply, which could suggest their ability to survive despite climate change. 

As with other migratory species, climate change is affecting the behavior patterns of the beluga whale. Studies have shown that some, but not all, beluga populations are migrating up to a month later than usual because of how long it takes the sea ice to freeze.

8. Asian Elephant

The Asian elephant is an endangered species that is particularly sensitive to rising temperatures.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species that is particularly sensitive to rising temperatures. Not only this but they are slow to reproduce and are affected by things like invasive plant life in the local area and an inability to disperse as well as being prone to disease.

One of the biggest issues for the Asian elephant that’s caused by climate change is habitat loss. Around 60% of all of this species can be found in India and Nepal, where habitats are already in serious decline. The concern is that the elephants will be forced into the Himalayas, where they’ll have to adapt to the higher elevation. 

Moreover, climate change has affected the available food for these elephants, meaning that there has been a decline in their already slow reproduction. But what most people don’t realize is that, if the species were to go extinct, this could spell disaster for several plant species since elephants are important seed distributors.

The focus right now is on protecting the forests in which the Asian elephant lives to prevent further habitat loss. 

9. Giant Panda

Giant pandas are faced with a potential loss of food as the rising temperatures hinder the growth of bamboo which is their main source of food.

The giant panda is an incredibly vulnerable species, with as few as 1000 adults left in the wild. Things like farming and tourism have played a role in the vulnerability of these creatures, but climate change has also had a significant impact. 

Primarily, pandas are faced with a potential loss of food as the rising temperatures hinder the growth of bamboo which is their main source of food. While there are conservation programs in place, the concern is that they’re delaying their efforts and, in the meantime, human habitation could take over areas where bamboo might thrive. 

Just like the Asian elephant I talked about before, the giant panda disperses seeds in its droppings which makes it an essential part of the ecosystem.

10. Monarch Butterfly

The issue with climate change for the monarch butterfly is that it has affected the species’ migration patterns.

Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The use of chemicals on these plants is one of the main threats to the species, but climate change is also causing problems.

The issue with climate change for the monarch butterfly is that it has affected the species’ migration patterns. These butterflies will usually migrate south to Mexico during the winter where they can be seen huddled in their hundreds of trees.

However, things like weather changes, including precipitation, storms, and droughts are all affecting this migratory behavior to the point that the migration is now considered a threatened phenomenon. The population have been rapidly declining, with numbers falling dramatically between the 1980s and the 2000s. Because of this, the species has now been listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that these butterflies will need to adjust their overwinter locations and to save populations, people are being encouraged to preserve and plant milkweed.

11. Ringed Seal

A lack of snow means that the ringed seals are unable to dig sufficiently sized lairs to protect their young, making them more vulnerable to predation.

The ringed seal relies on sea ice for resting, molting, and breeding. Of course, as we know, climate change is causing the sea ice to melt at an alarming rate, which puts these animals at serious risk. But it isn’t just the ice that’s a problem; a lack of snow means that the seals are unable to dig sufficiently sized lairs to protect their young, making them more vulnerable to predation. 

If these animals were to significantly drop in number or even go extinct, this would seriously affect the trophic levels of the ecosystem since they are considered to be both primary and secondary consumers.

In terms of food, climate change could also be detrimental to ringed seals since it could affect the number of fish species available to them, as many species are shifting as the sea temperatures change. 

While the ringed seal is still least as an animal of least concern, reviews have been taking place in North America to assess its status. And with an estimated 20% more sea ice set to melt in the coming four decades, it’s certainly something worth keeping an eye on.

12. Red Panda

The red panda is being forced to move to higher elevations as temperatures rise.

It’s thought that there are only around 10,000 red pandas left in the wild, and their numbers continue to decline. While things like fragmentation, poaching and habitat loss are all to blame for this, climate change plays a big role in these things occurring in the first place.

The red panda is being forced to move to higher elevations as temperatures rise. If this continues, there will come a point that there’s nowhere else for the species to go, and it’ll either have to adapt to the heat or be faced with extinction.

Another issue is a lack of food. Just like the giant panda, the red panda’s diet is almost entirely made up of bamboo. But as habitats shrink, these animals have less access to food. What’s more, changes in the weather as a result of climate change cause things like floods and landslides that contribute to habitat loss.

The good news is that the IUCN has placed a focus on four key areas in order to protect the species, including improving awareness, reducing deaths, improving habitat and reducing habitat degradation. 

13. Siberian Tiger

Over the past century, up to 97% of the tiger population has died, leaving a concerning number of tigers remaining in the wild. Despite various measures to conserve these magnificent creatures, such as outlawing the trade of tiger products and safeguarding their habitats, climate change continues to pose a significant threat to their survival.

The Siberian, or Amur tiger, is especially susceptible to the consequences of global warming among all tiger species. These creatures call the forests of eastern Russia and north-eastern China their home, and as global temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change, their existence is under threat.

The loss of their habitat is perhaps the most significant impact of climate change on Siberian tigers. The forests they rely on for shelter and food are being damaged, and the trees that provide shelter for their prey are also being affected, making it more challenging for the tigers to hunt.

As temperatures continue to rise, many of the animals that tigers hunt are migrating to higher elevations or further north to search for suitable habitats, making it increasingly difficult for the tigers to find food.

It is imperative that we prioritize the protection of these apex predators as they play a pivotal role in maintaining the ecological balance of the food chain. If we lose them, certain species may proliferate uncontrollably, leading to severe ramifications for the entire ecosystem.

14. Arctic Caribou

The concern is that climate change may be impacting the availability of food for Arctic caribou.

Reindeer and caribou play an important role in the Arctic by ensuring the richness of vascular plants. However, they could be at risk because of climate change, and globally, they’re considered a vulnerable species according to the IUCN Red List. 

Caribou are incredibly important as scientists believe that they could actually be slowing the effects of climate change. This is because, as they graze, this lightens the color of vegetation which in turn, reflects sunlight, preventing the area from warming as quickly. 

However, the concern is that climate change may also be impacting the availability of food for this species. To overcome this, the caribou may need to extend their range.

15. American Pika

As temperatures rise, the American pika are being forced to move to higher elevations.

The American pika is not listed under the endangered species act despite more than a third of the population disappearing from its native areas. As temperatures rise, these cute critters are being forced to move to higher elevations but this could help scientists to understand the effects of climate change and the animal is considered an indicator species for this.

Rising temperatures are, without doubt, the biggest threat to the pika which is adapted to live in cold climates. It prefers freezing temperatures and individuals may even die if they’re exposed to anything above 78ºF (26°C). At the moment, the species can move up the mountain, but there will come a time when there’s nowhere else to go if climate change continues.

However, since climate change is currently relatively slow, there is some evidence to suggest that the pika is more resilient than we first thought and could be adapting well to the changes.

16. Mountain Gorilla

As temperatures rise, there is a risk that agricultural land will encroach on mountain gorilla territory, limiting their habitat.

The mountain gorilla is perhaps one of the most iconic species in the world, but it’s also one of the most threatened, with an estimated 600 left in the wild. This intelligent species has been the focus of many conservationists in Rwanda and while numbers are increasing, it is believed that climate change is bringing about a whole new set of challenges. 

As temperatures rise, there is a risk that agricultural land will encroach on gorilla territory, limiting their habitat. What’s more, these apes enjoy a diet based around bamboo, but with rising temperatures, this food becomes scarcer. One of the major concerns is that a lack of nutrition will make the gorillas more susceptible to disease. What’s more, research has shown that the general stress levels among the species are higher in direct relation to higher temperatures. 

While mountain gorillas usually get their water from the plants they eat, studies have shown that gorillas are drinking water from streams, pools, and rivers more often, which is a significant change in their behavior. 

The WWF suggests that conservation efforts should focus on improving and protecting the mountain gorilla’s habitat as well as closely monitoring them for signs of disease. If we were to lose this incredible species, they’d no longer spread seeds and maintain the biodiversity of their local area.

Can Animals Adapt to Climate Change?

Can animals adapt to climate change?

The main concern when it comes to climate change is that animals simply won’t be able to adapt to the changes quickly enough to survive. However, this isn’t a problem across the board and there are some species that are adapting much more rapidly than we may have previously thought.

One of the most amazing examples of this is the humboldt squid. At one point, in Mexican waters, it was believed that the squid had vanished entirely because fishermen stopped being able to pick it up. As it turns out, the squid have adopted an entirely new form which was genetically built in and allowed them to survive in waters with a higher temperature than usual.

And squids aren’t the only ones that are changing to suit their new environments. One study suggests that warm blooded bird species are evolving to have larger beaks and bigger feet which better allow them to regulate their body temperatures. When we look at house sparrows in cooler climates, it’s easy to see that their beaks are significantly smaller than those found in warmer climes.

Some animals are simply moving to avoid having to face the effects of climate change, but this can only happen for so long. Unless we can stop climate change in its tracks, there will eventually come a time when it catches up with these species, so adapting is the better option.

There are species that are adapting incredibly well to climate change including the corals in the ocean’s reefs. While coral bleaching is of significant concern, studies have shown that many species, likely through natural selection, are no longer expelling their life-giving algae when exposed to higher temperatures. 

That said, it’s been shown that some animals are naturally more resilient than others when it comes to climate change. For example, creatures like the African elephant, the grizzly bear, and the chimpanzee appear to be more resilient to extreme weather, whereas the Arctic fox and the lemming are much more vulnerable to these changes. 

While all of this feels promising, there is some research that suggests that these adaptations are simply not sufficient to ensure the survival of the species.

Climate Change-Driven Extinctions: Any Confirmed Cases of Animals?

Are there any animals to have already gone extinct due to climate change?

It would surely be the hope of anyone that species never go extinct because of the damage humans have done through climate change. However, sadly, there is one species that has already gone extinct as a result of this; the bramble cay melomys (Melomys rubicola).

This is a mammal species that was officially declared extinct in February 2018 although it was believed to be extinct as far back as 2016. A cute little critter, the bramble cay melomys weighed less than an avocado.

The bramble cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) is a mammal species that was officially declared extinct in February 2018.
State of Queensland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 AU

These creatures had a very small geographic range and were only found on a small island in Papua New Guinea. Despite only recently being described as extinct, no individuals had been spotted since 2009.

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