Not only polar bears are affected by climate change's many dangers. Animals in all biomes and landscapes, from the tundras of the Arctic to the deserts of the Sahara and the forests of Brazil, are going to be endangered. In 2019, a small species called the Bramble Cay melomys became the first known species to go extinct exclusively due to climate change. Scientists say this is just the beginning, and climate change is hurtling the planet's animals toward the "sixth great extinction."
"Human activity, the consumption of fossil fuels, the acidification of the oceans, pollution, deforestation, and forced migrations threaten life forms of all kinds. It is estimated that one-third of corals, freshwater molluscs, sharks, and rays, one-fourth of all mammals, one-fifth of all reptiles, and one-sixth of all birds are heading towards extinction."
– Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction
You have probably heard the phrase, “save the polar bears” before. To understand what is happening to them, we must first understand the lifestyle of polar bears. Polar bears are the apex predators in the Arctic ecosystem and spend 50% of their time hunting for food, which mainly consists of ringed and bearded seals. On average, a polar bear only catches one or two out of the ten seals it hunts. They are dependent on sea ice for traveling, resting, raising young, mating, and hunting. However, due to climate change, sea ice now recedes earlier in the spring and forms later in the fall, causing polar bears to venture closer to land and human civilization. Indeed, climate change is taking away the anchor of the polar bear species by melting their habitat, which would have deadly consequences for the Arctic ecosystem. The disappearance of the polar bear throws the entire system out of balance. But the polar bear is just one of the more famous examples.
Another top predator of their ecosystem, snow leopards are often quite resilient to the immediate impacts of climate change because of their tenacious nature and low demand for resources. However, habitat loss is one of the most dangerous consequences of climate change for snow leopards. A WWF study found that 30% of snow leopard habitat will be lost in the apparent future with current greenhouse gas trends. This would decimate the already-small snow leopard population, impacting the entire ecosystem. Furthermore, inconsistent rainfall and rising temperatures affect the growth of vegetation that feeds the snow leopard's prey. As grasslands become less abundant, prey migrates elsewhere, leaving snow leopards with few resources and a smaller food supply. In order to save this species, we must take action now to preserve their habitats and livelihoods.
Penguins are yet another cold-dwelling animal that are, and will continue to be, affected by climate change. These flightless birds soar through the ocean waters, cutting through the icy depths with their streamlined and oily bodies. They serve a vital role in the ecosystem as secondary consumers — they help check the fish and krill populations — and are in turn preyed on by leopard seals, fur seals, sea lions, sharks, and killer whales. But penguins are in grave danger. A 2008 study conducted by WWF concluded that 50% of emperor penguins and 75% of Adelie penguins will be wiped out if worldwide temperatures increase by 2°C. We are currently well on the way to hitting that 2℃ mark, so if we don’t do something now, the millions of penguins that once called Antarctica their home will no longer be able to do so.
The long undisputed “king of the jungle,” the tiger, may be in danger of losing that title. Though these regal animals seem mighty and powerful, they, like many others, are vulnerable to the power of climate change. Rising sea levels may devastate the already scarce coastal habitats of endangered Bengal tigers. In addition, the temperature fluctuations are also modifying the habitat of Siberian tigers as the warmer conditions bring different trees to the forest. These changes result in less prey for the tigers, which have traditionally hunted in pine forests. Furthermore, as apex predators, tigers play key roles in maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems. Without these large carnivores, prey populations would run unchecked and ultimately destroy the ecosystem. And in the past 20 years, wild tiger populations have dropped by a whopping 96.8%! In order to protect these magnificent creatures, we need to stop the deforestation of their natural habitat and the pollution of the environment.
Sea turtles are one of the many endangered marine species that grace our oceans. Sea turtles lay eggs quite infrequently, and only a small percentage of their offspring survive. In addition to the species’ small chance of survival, almost all types of sea turtles are now classified as endangered due to extreme poaching and the rapidly changing climate. Scientists can see how climate change affects sea turtles even before eggs are hatched, as rising sea levels destroy beaches that female sea turtles use to lay their eggs. Sea turtles have imprinted memories of where they hatched, and therefore return to the same area to give birth to their own offspring. As a result of rising sea levels and the increasing rate of natural disasters, many beaches are destroyed, leaving sea turtles unable to find a place to lay their eggs. Warmer sands on remaining beaches increase the likelihood of hatchlings being female, resulting in less gender diversity among the species. For instance, a study conducted in 2002 by Florida Atlantic University showed that 97 to 100% of turtles hatched in Palm Beach County were female. A lack of male sea turtles will significantly impact the reproduction and population of the species. Warmer sea temperatures also decrease the natural habitat of sea turtles, and restrict their ability to find food.
African and Asian Elephants
Elephants are often used as a symbol to call attention to the African ivory trade and mass poaching of these animals. Unfortunately, these are not the only challenges facing African elephants. Droughts worsened by climate change dry up watering holes. Because African elephants require 150-300 liters of water for drinking alone, droughts can be deadly. Droughts also destroy vegetation, repeatedly starving many elephants during prolonged drought and harming fertility of female elephants. Warming temperatures and uncertain rainfall patterns combine with these droughts to produce very bad conditions for elephants. Meanwhile, in Asia, climate change allows invasive plant species to thrive, thus taking up valuable nutrition and resources for elephants.
These climate change effects combine with others to produce real harms for elephants. As humans expand deeper into elephants’ habitat, agriculture and development limit elephants’ space to roam. This habitat loss is also causing a decline in genetic diversity, posing potential problems for the future evolution and adaptability of the species.
Declining elephant populations also have a dramatic impact on the surrounding environment. African elephants are crucial to the survival of many plant and tree species as they carry seeds and assist in the development of vital vegetation in African forests. If we do not take drastic measures to protect elephant habitats now, herds of African and Asian elephant populations will decline, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and eventually leading these creatures to extinction.
Mountain Gorillas live at high altitudes and use their fur to keep them warm in colder temperatures. These animals are unique in their ability to survive in more difficult environments such as volcanoes, but according to studies done by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), gorillas’ food sources may not be able to sustain themselves because of warmer temperatures. Mountain gorillas mainly scavenge for food, yet FAO predicts that many plant species will reproduce in new areas throughout the mountains, as seeds will grow more easily in different environments, populating those areas instead and leaving mountain gorillas with limited food. Meanwhile, the mountain gorillas cannot relocate because they could be introduced to new diseases. Therefore, it’s important to put our effort into conserving forests and animal habitats for the survival of mountain gorillas and other species.
At the top of the ocean food chain, whales play an essential part in the ecosystem. In addition to keeping populations in check, whales actually have a vital part in combating climate change! Whales breathe oxygen and thus take in around 33 tons of carbon dioxide while also providing up to 50% of the oxygen we breathe. But despite the many benefits of whales, they too are being endangered by climate change. The continuously warming oceans take away whale habitats and their food sources. Small plants and animals will have no choice but to move elsewhere, which will force whales to exert much more effort in order to survive. The search for food will also affect the reproduction and migration of the whales. Though whales take in large amounts of CO2 and nourish the ecosystem, climate change is rapidly creating an uninhabitable environment for them.
Monarch butterflies are not only beautiful and interesting creatures to watch, but they also have an incredibly intricate migration pattern. Unfortunately, climate change is making this pattern less and less viable as harsher winters and drier summers encourage butterflies to move farther away from their original route, affecting their reproduction and food sources. A study done by WWF in 2013 concluded that the number of monarch butterflies in Mexico during the winter months was the lowest it’s been in 20 years. Changing temperatures force monarch butterflies to change their migratory patterns and cause problems throughout the species. In addition, milkweed blossoms, where monarch butterflies lay their eggs, increase their cardenolide production when temperatures rise in order to protect themselves from predators that would even further hurt the species’ survival. While monarch butterflies rely on cardenolide, a poisonous steroid, to allow larvae and adult butterflies to be poisonous to potential predators, higher concentrations of the toxin in milkweed blossoms can pose a catastrophic threat to the monarch population. Monarch butterflies acquire their unique coloring from these plants which protects them from other animals that associate excessive color with poison. Also known as the “milkweed butterfly,” monarch larvae rely entirely on milkweed to develop and become butterflies. Climate change is affecting both the migratory and developmental patterns of monarch butterflies, thus disrupting the entire species.
Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification
Coral reefs are often depicted as vibrant, colorful, and surrounded by thriving marine life. At one point, this was an accurate depiction of the incredible corals. However, recently, longer-lasting and more frequent coral bleaching events have been occurring. Coral bleaching occurs when corals are under stress from changes in light, nutrients, or temperature. Coral reefs are ending up farther and farther under the ocean due to rising sea levels, limiting their access to sunlight and causing slower growth. When their conditions change, corals get rid of their food source: the algae that live inside them. These algae are the center of a thriving ecosystem, and losing them causes coral to lose their vibrant colors and destroys this micro-ecosystem. While this action doesn’t immediately kill the coral, it makes it much harder to survive, especially after repeated stress on the corals.
Coral reef ecosystems are also negatively affected by ocean acidification. Ocean acidification occurs when the pH in the water drops as a result of increasing levels of CO2, and the rate at which coral reefs continue to grow their calcium carbonate skeleton slows significantly. If the issue of climate change is not tackled immediately, scientists believe it is possible we will lose coral reefs and their subsequent ecosystems altogether.
Giant pandas are known to be loveable and adorable, but unfortunately quite vulnerable. Pandas rely almost entirely on consuming large quantities of bamboo. However, climate change is lowering the growth rate of bamboo, limiting pandas’ access to food. While pandas may be able to adapt and move to regions with a more plentiful food supply, scientists predict bamboo will not respond to the changing climate as well due to its slow reproductive cycle and growth rate. Bamboo is a panda’s only food source, so losing this resource will be catastrophic for the species.
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